NJ High Court Could Toss Thousands of Small Cases

TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – Appointing a panel to hold hearings on the issue, the New Jersey Supreme Court suggested Thursday wiping the slate clean for people who were charged years ago with minor municipal offenses like traffic tickets.

Most of the nearly 800,000 open warrants on the chopping block are old, dating from 1986 to 2003, according to an order by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner released Thursday following a report on New Jersey’s municipal court system by a Supreme Court committee.

“Those old outstanding complaints and open warrants in minor matters 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,” Rabner’s order says.

The state’s high court appointed a three-member panel of superior court judges to holding hearings in different parts of the state “as to why older, minor municipal court complaints pending for more than 15 years should not be dismissed.”

In a statement released Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey called the move an important step in reforming the municipal court system.

“Our municipal courts too often prioritize the goal of bringing in revenue over the goal of dispensing justice in a way that best serves the people,” ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero said. “We look forward to working with the state and with municipalities to go even further to make sure that municipal courts move away from practices that criminalize people simply for being poor.”

The charges up for dismissal have been open and unresolved for years and are minor – traffic citations for running stop signs and red lights as well as fish, game and local ordinance violations. Nearly half are parking tickets.

They do not include more serious offenses, like disorderly conduct, drunk driving or driving without a license, passing a stopped school bus or excessive speeding.

“Municipal courts are often referred to as the face of the judiciary. For most citizens, it is their only exposure to the courts and judges of this state,” the committee’s report states, adding that there is a public perception that these courts unfairly derive much of their revenue from ticket fines.

“The committee is profoundly concerned with the excessive imposition of financial obligations on certain defendants,” according to the report. “While many of these fees and surcharges, and the funds that they support, are well intended, they ultimately have little to do with the fair administration of justice. They can be financially overwhelming to defendants, have a disproportionately negative impact on the poor, and often become the starting point for an ongoing cycle of court involvement for defendants with limited resources.”

Chief Justice Rabner appointed New Jersey Superior Court Judges Ronald Bookbinder, Ernest Caposela and Yolanda Ciccone to conduct the series of public hearings, with interested parties able to provide submissions in writing.

The panel will then present a report to the New Jersey Supreme Court and possibly offer a timeframe for parties to issue challenges to any dismissals.

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