NJ courts may dismiss nearly 800K warrants for old tickets
Days after a Supreme Court committee criticized the state's municipal courts for acting like ATM machines for local governments, the state's top court paved the way to dismiss nearly 800,000 outstanding warrants for local violations and parking tickets.
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner’s order on Thursday said old warrants “raise questions of fairness, the appropriate use of limited public resources by law enforcement and the courts, the ability of the state to prosecute cases successfully in light of how long matters have been pending and the availability of witnesses, and administrative efficiency.”
The warrants being considered are at least 15 years old and include 355,619 for parking tickets and 348,631 tickets for moving violations. The rest are for minor local offenses.
Criminal justice reform advocates say such warrants disproportionately affect the poor and minorities.
A 2015 U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department, following the unrest sparked by the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, said such warrants "exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices" and that "minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing."
The New Jersey Supreme Court order would not consider serious offenses such as driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, major traffic violations, disorderly and petty disorderly persons offenses, and indictable offenses.
The order calls for a three-judge panel would conduct hearings to allow people to argue why their cases should be dismissed. The dates and locations of the hearings have not been determined.
The committee's report called for dismissing bench warrants that involved minor offenses and recommended that warrants only be issued for serious offenses or in which unpaid fines are substantial.
The report also criticized municipal courts for abusing contempt of court assessments, which raked in $22 million for municipalities between 2015 and 2017.
The committee said defendants should not be jailed for failure to pay fines unless the municipal court holds a hearing to determine the person's ability to pay.