Questioning the fairness of keeping them on the books, the New Jersey Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed 787,764 old, low-level Municipal Court cases, following through on a proposal last year to do so.
The cases include parking tickets and driving offenses, such as running stop signs, and predate Jan. 1, 2003. Higher-level offenses, including drunken driving and disorderly persons offenses, remain on the books.
Of the dismissed cases, 335,619 involved parking tickets, 348,631 were for moving violations, and the remainderfor less common offenses, including fish and game violations. Most cases were from 1986 to 2003; the oldest was from 1976.
Municipal prosecutors had argued that forgiving old violations creates an amnesty program that can encourage people to ignore their cases until they go away. But the state’s highest court saw it otherwise.
“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 witness, and administrative efficiency,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in his order.
That was the exact language he used in July when he signaled his intent to dismiss all the old cases in a single move, ordering a three-judge panel to hold hearings on the proposal. It held three hearings before recommending that the cases be forgiven and that the court set up an ongoing annual review process of cases that are more than 15 years old.
Rabner’s decision Thursday included ordering a court committee to consider broadening the scope of the forgiveness program to include cases that are more than 10 years old, and a wider variety of violations. The committee will also be tasked with developing a system for regular review and dismissal of older minor cases.
It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the state Supreme Court to change the state’s Municipal Court system.
In March 2017, Rabner formed a committee to evaluate Municipal Court practices and recommend reforms. The committee’s recommendations included limiting the collection of court fees and the numbers of driver’s license suspensions.
“The committee was deeply concerned about what can be a never-ending imposition of mandatory financial obligations that have little to do with the fair administration of justice,” Assignment Judge Julio Mendez, the chair of the committee, said when the report was released.
“They can be financially overwhelming, can disproportionately impact the poor, and often become the starting point for an ongoing cycle of court involvement for individuals with limited resources.”
Social justice and civil liberties advocates say court costs — and the suspension of driver’s licenses for failing to pay them — impose a disproportionate punishment on poor people and compare it to debtors’ prison.
Municipal prosecutors contended that dismissing the cases undermines the justice system. Last year, the New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association voted to oppose the dismissal of old cases.