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New Jersey: Jail Time for Unpaid Littering Fine Results in Civil Suit

Anthony Kneisser flicked a cigarette butt out of his car window on the New Jersey Turnpike and found himself jailed when he appeared in court in 2014 for the littering offense, as he couldn’t pay the $200 fine and $39 in court costs immediately. The then-20-year-old was working part-time as a line cook while in school, and his father refused to pay the fine.

Burlington Township Municipal Court Judge Dennis P. McInerney opened his court session by admonishing defendants, “If a fine is imposed in your case the fine is due today. If you’re not prepared to pay the fine, you need to make a phone call, make whatever arrangements are necessary so you’ll be in a position to pay your fine today. If you refuse to pay your fine, I will sentence you to the county jail.”

Nonetheless, Kneisser approached the bench hoping to work out a payment plan or perform community service in lieu of a fine. Judge McInerney held true to his pronouncement and sentenced Kneisser to five days in jail. His father reconsidered when he discovered his son had been incarcerated; he paid the fine and Kneisser was released.

Kneisser subsequently filed suit against McInerney, the Township of Burlington and several other defendants alleging the court’s policy of jailing poor defendants despite their inability to pay fines amounted to a debtor’s prison, which had been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983.

“It was humiliating to be treated like a criminal just for being broke,” Kneisser said in a press release from the ACLU of New Jersey, which represents him along with the law firm of Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle & Sacks, LLC. “I couldn’t believe I was being sentenced to jail for not being able to pay a ticket for littering.”

The case remains pending, with an April 13, 2017 deadline for dispositive motions. See: Kneisser v. McInerney, U.S.D.C. (D. NJ), Case No. 1:15-cv-07043-NLH-AMD. 

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Related legal case

Kneisser v. McInerney