He made $9 an hour; fine was $239. Pay now, judge said, and wouldn’t allow installments. ACLU says it’s akin to debtors’ prison
Anthony Kneisser says all he was trying to do was set up a payment plan to pay a fine he received for throwing a cigarette butt out the window of his car. Instead, he says, he wound up in jail in Burlington Township, because he could not pay the fine in full the day he appeared in court.
Kneisser, of Jackson NJ, filed a lawsuit against Burlington Township and Dennis McInerney, the township’s municipal court judge, charging the decision to jail Kneisser violated due process and discriminated against him based on income. The suit was filed in federal court in Camden. Now, the American Civil Liberties Union has joined in, labeling the action to jail him akin to a modern-day debtors’ prison.
Kneisser was a 20-year-old student and part-time line cook earning $9 an hour in May 2014 when he was ticketed for flicking a cigarette butt out of his car. According to the court documents and a news release from the ACLU, Kneisser, who made $150 per week at the time, went to municipal court to try to work out a payment plan or to arrange community service because the fine plus court costs was $239.
McInerney refused and ordered Kneisser to call people he knew for money, according to the lawsuit. When Kneisser told the judge he didn’t have anyone to call, McInerney sentenced him to five days in jail on the grounds of refusal to pay the fine, according to the suit. Officials immediately handcuffed him and placed him under arrest.
“It was humiliating to be treated like a criminal just for being broke,” Kneisser, now 22, 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, who filed the lawsuit in September 2015, says that while he was in the holding cell, he was not allowed to use the phone at first. When he was finally permitted to use the phone, he was able to contact his father, who had made the suggestion of trying to set up a payment plan, according to the ACLU. Once he realized Kneisser faced jail time, his father realized the situation had gotten more urgent and paid the fine.
Jailing Kneisser put him at risk of losing his job, and put his dog in danger as well because the dog would have been without care for five days, the ACLU said.
“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 Jeanne LoCicero, ACLU-NJ deputy legal director and 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.”….