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Federal Judge: Jail Time for Inability to Pay Littering Fine Is Unconstitutional

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Your average traffic citation doesn't result in a five-day jail sentence. And whether you do jail time for a traffic offense shouldn't be contingent on your inability to pay. That just seems like common sense.

And, according to a federal judge in New Jersey, that's what the Constitution demands.

Fine or Jail?

A then-20-year-old college student, Anthony Kneisser, was ticketed in 2014 for throwing a cigarette butt out of his car window on the New Jersey Turnpike. The applicable jersey statute, 39 §4-64, mandates "a fine of not less than $200 or more than $1,000 for each offense." Kneisser couldn't afford to pay his $239 fine (including court costs and fees) at once, and attempted to explain as such to Municipal Court Judge McInerney at a hearing in May 2014.

The court rejected Kneisser's requests for community service or a payment plan and Judge McInerney instead encouraged him to "Go make a phone call." When Kneisser explained he had no one he could call to pay a portion of his fine that day, the judge responded, "All right. Well then you do the time. You're refusing to pay."

Jail Not Fine

While a defendant who can afford to pay a fine refuses, they may be subject to jail time. The Supreme Court has therefore ruled that "a sentencing court must inquire into the reasons for the failure to pay." Based on that inquiry, however, the Court has made it clear that "a State cannot convert a fine imposed under a fine-only statute into a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot immediately pay the fine in full."

And United States District Judge Noel Hillman minced no words in applying that standard to Judge McInerney's court:

The irrefutable evidence in this case shows that Plaintiff's fundamental constitutional rights were violated in four ways: (1) Despite having explained to Judge McInerney that he was indigent and having completed the "Financial Questionnaire to Establish Indigency" form that he provided to the clerk at the payment window, Judge McInerney did not follow U.S. Supreme Court and N.J. Supreme Court law or N.J.S.A. 2B:12-23 when he failed to consider Plaintiff's indigency and provide an alternative to immediate payment-in-full; (2) Despite Plaintiff's guilty plea to a fine-only offense, Judge McInerney sentenced Plaintiff to five days in jail and ordered Plaintiff arrested and placed in a holding cell, which unconstitutionally converted the fine-only penalty into a jail term; (3) Even though Plaintiff knowingly waived his right to counsel with regard to pleading guilty to the littering offense that only imposed a fine as a penalty, Plaintiff 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 fourth manner in which Plaintiff's constitutional rights were violated - arising from his search and placement in a jail cell - segues into the issue of whether the Municipal Court had (and still has) an unconstitutional policy and practice that results in these four separate constitutional violations.

Judge Hillman additionally scolded the municipal court for having a "policy and practice [that] effectively extorts payment from the family or friends of those indigent defendants, and violates their rights every step of the way." Hillman ruled township of Burlington can be held liable for the municipal court's unconstitutional practices, and that Kneisser's additional claims for unlawful imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, and false imprisonment could move forward.

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