Jailing someone who can’t pay right away “effectively extorts payment” from indigent defendants’ loved ones, a federal judge ruled.
Judge Noel L. Hillman of the United States District Court issued an opinion (PDF) in early April finding that Anthony Kneisser, who had faced a five-day jail sentence from Burlington Township Municipal Court for not immediately being able to pay a $239 ticket, had proved the claims against Burlington Township and its employees. The ruling allowed Kneisser’s claims against the municipal court judge to proceed to trial.
“The Burlington Township Municipal Court was acting like a modern-day debtors’ prison, and this ruling validates the constitutional concerns their actions raised,” said Alexi Velez, Staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and one of the attorneys representing Kneisser. “This decision is a big victory for civil liberties. Judge Hillman made clear that municipal courts cannot trample on poor people’s constitutional rights by prioritizing collecting money over dispensing justice.”
The lawsuit, initially filed in 2015, (PDF) charged that the municipal court violated the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions by depriving Kneisser, and likely others who came before the court, of due process and by discriminating against him based on income. Kneisser is represented by the ACLU-NJ and the law firm of Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, LLC.
Kneisser, who was a 20-year-old student and part-time line cook earning $9 an hour, was ticketed on the New Jersey Turnpike for flicking a cigarette butt out of his car in 2014. Unable to pay the $239 he owed, he went to municipal court to try to set up a payment plan or arrange community service. The municipal court judge refused, instead ordering Kneisser to call people he knew to ask for money. When Kneisser told the judge he did not have anyone to call, he was sentenced to five days in jail. Kneisser was then handcuffed and placed under arrest.
“I couldn’t be happier about Judge Hillman’s decision. Not only does it protect and uphold my rights, but it also acknowledges that this municipal court violated the rights of many people,” Kneisser said. “I brought this lawsuit because I wanted to make sure that no one else would be sent to jail just because they could not afford to pay, and this ruling puts that goal closer within reach.”
Judge Hillman found that the municipal court violated Kneisser’s rights by using the prospect of jail time to coerce same-day payment from defendants who cannot afford to pay:
This policy or practice effectively extorts payment from the family or friends of . . . indigent defendants, and violates their rights every step of the way by converting fine-only penalty into putative 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 inform process to search and seize these defendants and place them in jail.
Judge Hillman further noted that, under the municipal court’s policy and practice, “It is . . . clear that countless defendants’ constitutional rights have been, and may continue to be, violated.”
“What happened to Anthony amounted a gross violation of his rights and of the law,” said Marguerite Kneisser, a lawyer with Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, LLC, and Anthony’s sister; she initiated the lawsuit. “We count on all of our courts to be fair and treat everyone equally, but this municipal court discriminated against Anthony because he could not afford to pay. No one should have to go through what he went through, and Judge Hillman clearly wanted to make sure that this never happens again.”