Former N.J. inmates await state Supreme Court decision on old warrants

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Robert Still, a former inmate living in Camden, owes about $2,000 in municipal court fines he says he is unable to afford. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Robert Still, a former inmate living in Camden, owes about $2,000 in municipal court fines he says he is unable to afford. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Here’s how Robert Still describes himself these days: “Been married twice, got six kids, and I lost my license.”

The Camden resident was released from a New Jersey jail about two years ago after serving an eight-month sentence for receiving stolen property and domestic violence.

He wants to restart his life, but he cannot even start a car.

That’s because Still has outstanding municipal court fines dating as far back as 1984 and totaling about $2,000 — an amount Still says he cannot afford — which prohibit him from getting a driver’s license.

“It’s kind of my fault for failure to appear to court,” he acknowledged.

Open municipal court warrants and unpaid fines can cause offenders to lose driving privileges or fail a background check conducted by an employer or a landlord, advocates say.

Yet Still notes that his inability to drive makes it harder for him to start over. He takes public transportation to his job at McDonald’s because he cannot get a better-paying job driving a cement truck as he once did.

“I can’t get around like I used to when I was driving. Got to walk everywhere if I don’t have any other transportation,” Still said. “I would love to have [my driver’s license] back.”

Still may get that chance.

N.J. court may toss hundred of thousands of old cases

The New Jersey Supreme Court is currently considering whether to dismiss hundreds of thousands of low-level municipal court matters 15 years and older that have not been prosecuted.

The idea came out of a report commissioned by the justices and released over the summer that showed, in part, how excessive fines and driver’s license suspensions can unfairly harm a defendant’s life.

The state found 787,764 open warrants from 1986 to 2003 for failure to appear in court for cases that included parking violations, minor motor vehicle offenses and local ordinance violations. (Some cases dated back even further than 1986.)

Of those, 355,619 were cases where people did not appear in court for a parking ticket and 348,631 involved tickets for moving violations. (More serious municipal offenses — including drunken driving, reckless driving, and disorderly and petty disorderly persons violations — would not be dismissed under the proposal.)

“Those old outstanding complaints and open warrants 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 witnesses, and administrative efficiency,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in a July order.

Rabner convened a three-judge panel to hold hearings across New Jersey asking people to testify about why the court should not do away with these old municipal court matters.

The hearings were sparsely attended, and any opposition seems to be minimal.

Even the League of Municipalities, which represents cities and towns across the state, said it does not oppose the move.

The three-judge panel has not yet submitted its report to the state Supreme Court.

Outstanding warrants block road to re-entry

Pat McKernan, chief operating officer for Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, runs a re-entry program called Safe Return.

She constantly meets former inmates hoping to rebuild their lives who run into the barrier of pending low-level municipal court matters from years earlier.

“It hobbles them as they try to get their lives back together,” McKernan said. “You can’t get a driver’s license or you can’t get a landlord to give you a lease for an apartment because you have outstanding warrants.”

McKernan said many people with open warrants or outstanding fines are like Robert Still — too poor to pay.

“The majority of folks who are caught up in the criminal justice system are low-income folks,” she said.

Camden resident Danen Sanders recently got out of prison after serving a five-year sentence for official misconduct.

Facing more than $6,000 in municipal court fines, Sanders got a state ID, but was unable to obtain a driver’s license, which he said would “help greatly” in getting back on his feet.

Sanders owes the money for two municipal court offenses: driving without insurance in 1996 and driving with a suspended license in 1997.

Like Still, Sanders said he does not have enough money to pay off the fines, having just been released from prison.

But he hopes to cobble together the funds after starting his new job at Forman Mills. Though it’s only a short drive from his residence, he’ll need to take two buses and maybe a train to get there.

“That’s doable of course, but it’s an issue,” Sanders said. “If you have your car, it’s more convenient.”

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