BURLINGTON, N.J. (CN) – A federal judge issued a blistering condemnation Friday of a New Jersey court that unconstitutionally jails people who cannot pay littering fines.
“This policy and practice effectively extorts payment from the family or friends of those indigent defendants, and violates their rights every step of the way by converting a fine-only penalty into punitive incarceration, by failing to provide indigent defendants with alternatives to full and immediate payment, by ignoring that these defendants have not waived their right to counsel relating to a jail sentence, and by issuing constitutionally infirm process to search and seize these defendants and place them in jail,” U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman wrote.
In the underlying case, Anthony Kneisser received a littering summons in 2014 when he threw a cigarette butt out of his car window on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Together with court costs and fees, Kneisser’s offense was primed to cost him $239.
Unable to afford the fine, Kneisser went to the Burlington Township Municipal Court in May to request a payment plan or community service as part of his guilty plea.
A 20-year-old college student at the time, Kneisser was making $9 an hour as a part-time line cook.
At his hearing, Judge Dennis McInerney advised Kneisser that if he could not put up any money after the hearing, he would have to spend five days in county jail. Kneisser spent several hours in a cell before his father brought in a check with the fine amount ruling.
Though McInerney insisted that he never intended for Kneisser to go to jail, Friday’s ruling from Hillman notes that precedent from both the U.S. Supreme Court and New Jersey Supreme Court law, as well as state law, required Judge McInerney “to consider plaintiff’s indigency and provide an alternative to immediate payment-in-full.”
Furthermore, the ruling continues, Kneisser pleaded guilty to a fine-only offense, and McInerney’s sentencing unconstitutionally converted it into a jail term.
Hillman also emphasized that Kneisser knowingly waived his right to counsel only with regard to the littering offense that carried the fine as the only penalty.
Kneisser “did not knowingly waive his right to counsel – to obtain his own or have one appointed to him due to his indigent status – for the imposition of a prison sentence,” the ruling continues.
Alexi Machek Velez, an attorney for Kneisser with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, applauded the partial summary judgment for her client.
“Judge Hillman recognized that the Burlington Township Municipal Court preyed on poor people, extorting payments from their friends and family with illegal threats of jail time,” Velez said in an email.
“We’re gratified that he recognized this gross injustice and look forward to working with the township and the judge to craft a constitutionally compliant system and settle the case.”
Judge Hillman noted that the state court hearing Kneisser’s appeal reached “the same obvious, disheartening, even shocking, conclusion,” as he had.
“It is clear that defendants’ policy and practice was in effect for a long time, and it still may be,” Hillman wrote. “It is also clear that countless defendants’ constitutional rights have been, and may continue to be, violated. Those defendants are not plaintiffs in this case, and Plaintiff has not instituted a class action complaint. Defendants’ policy and practice is proven as applied to Plaintiff, however, which is more than sufficient to establish the practice’s existence, and its constitutional infirmity.”
Hillman’s ruling says that the township can be held liable for its municipal court’s unconstitutional practices but that Kneisser’s claims against Judge McInerney and court administrator Rosa Henry are not ripe for summary judgment.
David Serlin, who represented Judge McInerney in his official capacity as well as the township of Burlington and its municipal court, declined to comment on the ruling, saying he had not yet read through the entire judgment by late Monday afternoon.