U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

'Can't Pay Your Fine, You Do Time' -- Policy Ruled Unconstitutional

A litterbug out of the state of New Jersey has filed, and basically won, a federal lawsuit over being jailed after pleading guilty to a fine-only offense. Notably, that fine was less than $250, including all the garbage administrative fees courts tack on.

After explaining to the court that he could not afford to pay the fine immediately, but could enter a payment plan, or do community service, he was jailed. Fortunately, for Anthony Kneisser, a family member paid the fine for him shortly after being taking into custody. But, unfortunately for the Burlington Township Municipal Court, the federal district court ruled in the plaintiff's favor on their motion for summary judgment.

Shocking For So Little

While it may be surprising that New Jersey's fine for littering is only $200, it's definitely more surprising that the defendant (turned plaintiff) was jailed for such a paltry amount even after claiming indigency and offering alternative ways to pay. If a family member had not bailed him out of trouble, he would have been looking at a five day sentence pulled out of thin air, all for $240!

As the federal court noted, on appeal in the state court, the decision was not only overturned, but the appellate judge apologized on behalf of the court:

I'm not in the business of apologizing for some of my brethren in the other courts of this state. I can tell you, I sit on municipal appeals. Out of all of the courts in Burlington County, I've never had this before me before, but I - I know it happened because it's right here. It's clear as day what happened. It just shouldn't have went that way. I apologize on behalf of the Judiciary. That's all I can do.

The federal court did not have to do too much work to reach the same conclusion and find liability. Interestingly though, it did not find that summary judgment was warranted against the judge individually, although that portion of the case was not dismissed.

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