Burlington court’s actions amounted to modern-day debtors’ prison
Burlington Township Municipal Court acted akin to a modern-day debtors’ prison when it ordered a man to serve jail time because he could not immediately pay court costs, said a federal lawsuit (PDF) the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey joined yesterday.
The lawsuit, initially filed in 2015, charges that the municipal court violated the New Jersey and U.S. Constitutions by depriving Anthony Kneisser, and likely others who came before the court, of due process and discriminating against him based on income.
Kneisser, a 20-year-old student and part-time line cook earning $9 an hour at the time, was ticketed 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 judge refused and ordered Kneisser to call people he knew for money. Kneisser told the judge he didn’t have anyone to call, and he was sentenced to five days in jail. Officials immediately handcuffed him and placed him under arrest.
“It was humiliating to be treated like a criminal just for being broke,” Kneisser said. “I couldn’t believe I was being sentenced to jail for not being able to pay a ticket for littering. Some people in the courtroom gasped, and others laughed at the idea of being jailed over a $200 littering ticket. At my job at the time, $200 was one week’s pay. I filed this suit to get justice, not just for myself, but to make sure that no one else has to go through what I went through, or worse, for being broke.”
Kneisser immediately thought about what would happen to his dog, who would have been left alone for five days. Kneisser feared for his job if he had to miss several days without notice. In the holding cell, Kneisser wasn’t allowed to use the phone at first and worried about how he would explain to his mother, whose car he had borrowed, where her vehicle was.
Fortunately, Kneisser’s family was able to bail him out. Earlier, his father had told him he couldn’t help pay the ticket and suggested he go to court to try to set up a payment plan instead. But once Anthony faced the prospect of jail, his father realized the situation had gotten more urgent.
“It’s unconstitutional for a municipal court to send someone to jail — to rip someone from their job, their family, and their everyday life — for not being able to pay a fine. The court’s actions amount to a modern-day debtors’ prison,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, one of the attorneys representing Kneisser. “Municipal courts should take a person’s ability to pay into account and make sure no one goes to jail without first having access to a lawyer.”
The ACLU-NJ has reason to believe that he is not the only low-income New Jerseyan who has been jailed for not having money to pay court fines.
“The six million cases before municipal courts each year in New Jersey routinely end in hefty fines and jail time,” says ACLU-NJ Legal Fellow Alexi Velez, who is spending a year studying the role of municipal courts in the criminalization of poverty through a grant from the Maida Fellowship Program at Rutgers Law School. “When people cannot afford to pay the fines and fees courts impose, the snowballing debts can quickly become insurmountable and risk of jail time increases. The role of these courts as revenue generators and debt collectors can undermine their purpose and challenge their integrity.”
More than 30 years ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that jailing people because of inability to pay court fines and fees is an affront to American values and the Constitution. In that 1983 case, the court made a distinction between unwillingness to pay and inability to pay. Federal law has banned debtors’ prisons since 1833.
“A person’s freedom should not be conditioned on money they do not have,” said Marguerite Kneisser of the law firm Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, LLC, who initiated the lawsuit and serves as co-counsel with the ACLU-NJ. She is Anthony Kneisser’s sister. “What happened to Anthony erodes public faith in our democratic institutions and goes against what our Constitution stands for.”
Kneisser filed the civil rights lawsuit in September 2015 in United States District Court. The docket number is 1:15-cv-07043.