Capitol Report

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July 22, 2019

Supreme Court weighs in on municipal court operations, fines and fees

Following up on recommendations from the Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines and Fees, the high court issued administrative determinations in a report released earlier this month. The New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA) issued comments supporting many of  the committee’s 49 recommendations, many of which have now been adopted. Recommendation 49 proposed creating a working group. The group was created immediately, and includes Joshua Reinitz, the immediate past chair of the NJSBA Municipal Court Practice Section.

Among the approved recommendations are:

   Create a Judiciary policy providing municipal court judges with guidelines for consideration of all available sentencing alternatives, both at the time of sentencing and as part of post-sentencing enforcement. The NJSBA supported this recommendation, noting that wider discretion in sentencing is preferable for all parties involved, as it allows the parties and the court to tailor the sentence more appropriately to the offense.

   Develop a policy and tools to assist municipal courts in establishing payment plans, determining defendant eligibility for other post-disposition sentencing alternatives, and making ability-to-pay determinations. The NJSBA supported this recommendation, especially for indigent people, because of the increased costs borne by a person who is found guilty of an offense, the extremely high cost of living in the state and the dearth of public transportation.

   Develop an opportunity for defendants who become delinquent on time payments to have an ability-to-pay hearing with proper notice to the defendant before a bench warrant or license suspension is issued. Another recommendation provides that bench warrants be limited to certain serious offenses, taking into account the seriousness of the offense charge, the age of the case and other relevant factors. The NJSBA supported this recommendation, with the added consideration that bench warrants should be issued in cases with consequences of magnitude.

   Develop a policy formalizing the process for the recalling of existing bench warrants for failure to pay for complaints that have been disposed, taking into account the age of the bench warrant, the seriousness of the conviction, the amount owed and any other relevant factors. Similarly, the recommendation was made to formalize the process for dismissal of old complaints that have not been disposed, taking into account the seriousness of the age of the case and other relevant factors. The NJSBA supported both recommendations.

   Develop additional tools and procedures for municipal court judges and staff to determine whether a defendant who has failed to appear or pay is incarcerated before a bench warrant or license suspension is issued. Similarly, municipal courts should recall bench warrants or rescind driver’s license and vehicle registration suspensions when a defendant makes a subsequent good faith effort to report to court or to satisfy a legal financial obligation. The NJSBA supported both recommendations.

   With regard to compliance and legal financial obligations, the Supreme Court approved the establishment of a system for automated text, email, and/or telephonic reminders to defendants of upcoming or missed court dates and upcoming or missed legal financial due dates.

   Two additional recommendations sought to develop policies expanding the use of video and telephone appearances in appropriate instances and explore the establishment of a uniform online adjournment request process.

The Supreme Court Administrative Determinations on the Report and Recommendations of the Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines and Fees can be found under Notices to the Bar at njcourts.com.

This is a status report provided by the New Jersey State Bar Association on recently passed and pending legislation, regulations, gubernatorial nominations and/or appointments of interest to lawyers, as well as the involvement of the NJSBA as amicus in appellate court matters. To learn more, visit njsba.com.

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