New Jersey Law Changes Regarding Collection of Fines in Municipal Court
The New Jersey statute regarding installment payments has changed. The New Jersey Supreme Court issued Directive #02-10 on March 2, 2010 to provide guidance to municipal courts for the changes to New Jersey Statute Annotated 2B:12-23.1, effective January 18, 2010. Municipal courts in New Jersey hear disorderly and petty disorderly person offenses, other non-indictable offenses, motor vehicle and traffic violations, fish and game regulations and boating laws, and violations of county and municipal ordinances. In most matters cases are resolved by the municipal court judge imposing a monetary penalty or fine. Many defendants have a difficult time making the payment on the day they are sentenced.
Payment of Fines in Installments
N.J.S.A. 2B:12:23.1 allows for the municipal courts of New Jersey to order payment of the fines/penalties in installments for a period of time determined by the court. This statute does not apply to the payment of restitution to the victim of a crime or the $250 surcharge assessed for unsafe driving (New Jersey Statute 39:4-97.2). The New Jersey Supreme Court directive #02-10 states that the defendant must complete a financial questionnaire in order for the municipal court judge to make a decision regarding the defendant's ability to pay. One factor the judge should consider is if the defendant's earnings are less than 250% of the federal poverty guidelines to be considered for time payments which is an annual gross income of $27,075 for a one person household, $36,425 for a two person household, $45,775.00 for a three person household, and $55,125.00 for a four person household.
Default of Fines
A defendant shall be considered to default on time payments if the defendant's driver's license is suspended for failure to pay (N.J.S.A. 2B:12-31(a)(2) or if an arrest warrant has been issued for the defendant after failure to pay. Upon defaulting on time payments the municipal court can institute the alternatives listed in the statute after finding the defendant does not have the ability to pay. The judge must state on the record the reason for changing the sentence and the implementation of alternatives for any payment of fines/penalties.
If a person defaults on any payments and the municipal court finds that the defendant does not have the ability to pay the court has five options: (1) reduce the penalty, suspend the penalty, or modify the installment plan; (2) order that credit be given against the amount owed for each day of confinement, if the court finds that the person has served jail time for the default; (3) revoke any unpaid portion of the penalty, if the court finds that the circumstances that warranted the imposition have changed or that it would be unjust to require payment; (4) order the person to perform community service in lieu of payment of the penalty; or (5) impose any other alternative permitted by law in lieu of payment of the penalty. These five options give municipal court judges too much discretion.
Financial Ability to Pay
In practice, criminal defense attorneys must be aware of their client's financial ability to pay prior to appearing in court. The criminal defense attorney must advise their clients in advance of the possible penalties to be imposed and question the client's ability to pay. Furthermore, if the defendant does not have the ability to pay a substantial fine, for example a driving while intoxicated or a large fine for a municipal ordinance violation which could be up to $2,000, the defendant should be prepared with his or her financial earnings information to complete the financial questionnaire. In order to expedite the decision of the judge regarding the defendant's ability to pay the municipal court should make available prior to court the financial questionnaire. In the alternative, the Administrative Office of the Courts of the State of New Jersey should make available a standard financial questionnaire form to be used by all municipal courts and have this form downloadable online.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court's directive does not list other factors that the municipal court should consider in determining the defendant's ability to pay. The Court only states one factor, whether the defendant's income is less than 250% of the federal poverty guidelines. By only listing this one factor the Supreme Court seems to imply that if you are under the annual gross income levels you are eligible for time payments. Income alone does not show a person's ability to pay the court imposed fine or penalty. The financial questionnaire should list other factors for the court to consider such as the defendant's current financial liabilities including rent payments, mortgage payments, auto payments, insurance payments, child support, medical expenses, and any other monthly living expenses.
Credit Card Payment Options?
The Supreme Court should consider requiring all municipal courts to have a credit card payment option. This may reduce the need for time payments to be decided by the municipal court judges. Municipal court judges should not be wasting valuable judicial resources on reviewing the financial questionnaire of a defendant. Defendants need to be aware of the possible penalties and fines that could be imposed and make arrangements to pay the fine prior to appearing in court. Additionally, the Court or legislature should put monetary values on community service and jail confinement, if these alternatives to payments are imposed after a defendant's failure to pay. For example, for every hour of community service the defendant should be credited $10.00, or for every day of jail confinement a defendant should be credited $50.00. This would allow for fairness to people who can pay their fines and penalties.The municipal courts will continue to struggle with payments of fines and penalties by defendants until the New Jersey Supreme Court makes clearer rules and regulations and takes discretion out of the hands of the municipal court judges.
Call Villani & DeLuca, P.C. for Help with Fines and Collections
If you have been levied fines and have questions, call the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Villani & DeLuca, P.C. for a free initial consultation at (732) 709-7757 today!