A few weeks ago in this space, I expressed my frustration that various state laws were too weak to deal with public intoxication. The other side of the coin regarding the enforcement of laws and ordinances at the local level is what happens in municipal court – in particular, cases where accused persons do not show up for court dates.
The only real leverage a municipal court has over those who refuse to comply or ignore the court subpoena is a warrant for their arrest. You’d be surprised how many people ignore notices and summonses for public intoxication, housing code violations, illegal dumping, and the like.
Still, I have mixed emotions about the use of arrest warrants. I’ve seen arrest warrants turn people’s lives upside down. For example, someone misses a court date and months or years later gets arrested for a broken tail light. They could end up being taken to jail on the current term.
Those with sufficient resources can post bail or pay the fine. It can be embarrassing, inconvenient and annoying, but not life changing. However, those who cannot afford it could spend days or weeks in jail, resulting in job loss, eviction from their homes and even loss of custody of their children.
These life-changing outcomes tend to occur primarily in black and brown people, as they most often lack the resources and power to navigate the criminal justice system. So, I understand why New Jersey courts have scrutinized city courts and arrest warrants. I think they were right to do so.
While issuing arrest warrants was once common practice when people failed to show up for breach of order hearings, the focus is now on issuing notices of non-appearance, or FTAs. They’re basically strongly worded reminders, but that’s about it. If you rack up enough free trade deals, it could eventually result in a warrant, though getting it served is another matter altogether.
Municipal courts have guidelines as to when an arrest warrant should be issued. Factors include the nature of the offence; the degree of public risk caused by the accused’s failure to appear and the number of free trade agreements previously issued to that person.
I agree that, given past excesses, there was a need to examine this corner of our state’s justice system and curb the worst excesses, such as the use of city courts as an ATM to top up local budgets. That said, I also think we need to make sure we have a balance, so that local application isn’t completely toothless.
Enforcing the code at the local level is no easy feat. Failure to follow maintenance codes, prohibitions against illegal dumping, and similar ordinances directly affect the health, safety, or well-being of tenants and other residents whom these regulations were intended to assist. Everything from litter and grass proliferation to violations like overflowing dumpsters, illegal parking, loud music, loitering and, of course, public drunkenness is covered.
All of this matters a great deal in a community that works to improve appearances, change people’s perceptions, and strengthen its overall outlook. I’m not saying a municipality can dictate its path to growth and prosperity, but attracting private investment doesn’t happen if neighborhoods and commercial areas are ravaged by litter, neglected properties, and broken beggars. drunkenness because the courts have become a weak link in the local enforcement chain.
Police and other law enforcement personnel can issue as many notices and subpoenas as they wish, but when these are ignored or the issue causing the alleged violations is unresolved, small towns and villages need the leverage that only the justice system can provide. Without it, it becomes a lot of paperwork and not much more.
We need the right balance so that local enforcement has consequences, while avoiding the worst excesses of the past. At present, finding that balance remains a work in progress.
Albert B. Kelly is mayor of Bridgeton. Contact him by phone at 856-455-3230 Ext. 200.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Send a letter to the editor of South Jersey timetables at sjlett[email protected]
bookmark NJ.com/Opinion. Follow on Twitter @NJ_Opinion and find NJ.com Reviews on Facebook.