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Libertarian Watchdog Cries Foul on West Deptford Court

Downgrading crimes to ordinance violations means a faster court system and more money in fines, but subverts justice, according to John Paff.

What do the game show Let's Make a Deal and West Deptford's municipal court have in common?

Entirely too much, according to one Libertarian watchdog.

West Deptford’s is raking in money by giving defendants the opportunity to bargain their crimes down to ordinance violations in exchange for steep fines, in violation of a 1998 directive from then-Attorney General Peter Verniero that effectively banned the process, according to John Paff, chair of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Open Government Task Force.

“They can't play with justice like this,” Paff said. “Money shouldn't be the grease in the wheels of justice.”

And to make matters worse, Paff said, West Deptford Prosecutor Kelly Conroy's municipal ordinance of choice for those downgraded charges is a vaguely worded nuisance ordinance, an identical version of which was ruled unconstitutional by a state appellate court in 1996—before the ordinance was actually passed in West Deptford, according to the township’s code.

Given the municipal court has downgraded everything from receiving stolen property to defiant trespass to hindering apprehension, it comes down to a question of what the municipal court’s purpose is, he said.

“Are they intended to dispense substantial justice...or are they intended to be sources of money?” Paff said.

One of his biggest concerns is with violent offenders who get their charges downgraded in this way, Paff said, given municipal ordinance offenses don't show up, as criminal convictions do, in other courts, meaning repeat offenders could be treated as first-timers, avoiding jail time despite multiple offenses.

“It completely defeats the concept of progressive punishment,” Paff said.

Pressure on courts to either clear the caseload—West Deptford's court meets just once a week, generally—or bring in money—West Deptford’s court took in just under $363,000 in 2010, according to the municipal budget—means taking shortcuts like these downgrades to avoid trials, which could add police overtime and additional court costs, Paff said.

“Courts aren't necessarily supposed to be a profit center,” he said. “Justice sometimes costs money to impose.”

But something needs to be done to resolve the disconnect between what the state Attorney General has said and what’s being done at the local level—perhaps by appealing to the state legislature for more help in dealing with crime on the municipal level, Paff said, rather than just throwing the system under the bus in the interest of expediency.

“This is just nonsense—this isn't justice,” he said. “They need to adopt a policy where they don't do this any more.”

West Deptford isn’t the only town Paff has seen this happen, either. He’s approached prosecutors in Cumberland, Burlington, Bergen and Somerset counties, among others, and gotten a response from some—Burlington and Somerset both sent out letters stopping the process there—while others have ignored him.

“It's easier for everyone to ignore it,” Paff said. “It's a nice, cozy little system.”

What will happen in West Deptford is now up to the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office, which told Paff the situation’s being addressed.

“We will be reaching out to (Conroy) regarding the concerns you have raised regarding the use of this local ordinance in light of the AG policy on this issue,” Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean F. Dalton wrote Paff in an email.

Township officials said they’re waiting on the call from the county office on what should be done.

"We'll see what action needs to be taken, if any," township administrator Eric Campo said.

The township reviews ordinances from time to time, Campo said, but that usually happens in the context of a court decision.

As for what the municipal prosecutor does, Campo said there’s a firewall between the township government and the court.

"There's very clear rules there," Campo said. “It would just not come into this side of the building.”

GEORGE ROBERTS May 14, 2012 at 12:35 PM
If it's working and keeping the jails from being over crowded what's the problem. The state still gets there percentage of the fines. It always takes one to mess up the system. If its working don't fix it.
John Cokos May 14, 2012 at 01:27 PM
George, get a grip on reality ! This is a sinister money laundering policy to make up for budget shortages, and to grease the law enforcement/lawyer axis. I'm in Deptford Twp, and fought this in Municipal Court. These plea downs are "Boiler Plate' CYA to justify flawed arrests by local LEO'S. If your in the clear of a charge, hire a good lawyer and deny the municipality the ill gotten gains. The money I spent on a lawyer was well spent, as the thrill of beating them at their own game is the gift that keep's on giving!! " Case Dismissed " are two words that spoil the day local law enforcement. Always challenge authority. I'm going to contact the Prosecutor's and address this issue in Deptford. It's alive and well. By the way, I belong the Libertarian Party, and Paff's work is good, but it only reflects his effort's. I don't see the Lib's jumping on this as a group...
NJcorruptionsux May 14, 2012 at 05:28 PM
I agree with you John. I belong to the Libertarian Party as well. John Paff's work is ALL GOOD. See the attached letter sent to the Mayor. This is one example of what Paff is talking about: January 27, 2012 Hon. Raymond Chintall, Mayor and members of the West Deptford Township Committee 400 Crown Point Rd West Deptford, NJ 08086 (via E-mail only to aleso@westdeptford.com ) Dear Mayor Chintall and Members of the Township Committee: I write, both individually and in my capacity as Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party’s Preempted Ordinance Repeal Project to request the Mayor and Committee to ask the municipal attorney to review the Township’s loitering code and similar codes and render an opinion on their validity. We’re confident that your attorney will, like the municipal attorneys for Butler (Morris County), Elmwood Park (Bergen County), Long Branch (Monmouth County) and several other municipalities1, determine that Township’s loitering prohibition is preempted by the New Jersey Criminal Code and is thus invalid.
NJcorruptionsux May 14, 2012 at 05:29 PM
Here is why. When the Legislature enacted New Jersey’s Criminal Code in 1979, it specifically decided to not include a loitering prohibition within the Code out of concern that “vagrancy and loitering statutes have long suffered from constitutional infirmity and have been criticized as inviting official harassment and discriminatory enforcement.”2 It follows, therefore, that no municipality, such as West Deptford, is allowed to locally prohibit loitering and vagrancy when the Legislature has decided to decriminalize those acts.
NJcorruptionsux May 14, 2012 at 05:32 PM
And, it’s not just loitering and vagrancy that have superseded by state law. In 2003, the Appellate Division found that Chapter 33 of the New Jersey Criminal Code “reveals a policy to comprehensively address street behavior and other conduct in public places which may disturb citizens and disrupt peaceful society.”4 The 1 Butler, Elmwood Park and Long Branch have loitering codes that are very similar to West Deptford’s. In Ord. 2008-16, which repealed Butler’s loitering code, the Borough Council found that it had been “declared invalid by the New Jersey Supreme Court.” In Ord. 05-07, the Elmwood Borough Council found that its loitering prohibition “has been preempted and rendered unenforceable by the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice.” And, in Ord. 27-09, the City of Long Branch found that its loitering prohibitions “do not comply with the court decisions and/or rulings of state agencies.” The repeal ordinances for these and several other municipalities are on the project’s website at http://www.lpcnj.org/OGTF/Loiter.html 2 See State v. Crawley, 90 N.J. 241, 247 (1982). 3 See State v. Crawley, at p. 251. 4 See State v. Paserchia, 356 N.J. Super. 461, 466 (App.Div.2003)
NJcorruptionsux May 14, 2012 at 05:34 PM
2 Legislature, the court found, recognized the tension between controlling “street behavior” and safeguarding citizens’ free speech and assembly rights. Therefore, it decided to regulate “street behavior” so comprehensively at the state level that there was no room left for local regulation of the same conduct. 5 But, West Deptford’s Code § 106-2(c), for example, prohibits loitering that could obstruct the free passage of pedestrians or vehicles. This provision, in the hands of an unscrupulous mayor or police chief, could be used as a pretext to prevent peaceful citizens from assembling on a public sidewalk near a municipal building to protest against taxes or upon some other public issue. For this reason, this code provision’s statutory counterpart—N.J.S.A. 2C:33-76—requires the police to accommodate free expression and assembly rights. Under the statute, the police must first try to limit the size of the crowd or move it to a different location. And, in order to prove a violation of the statute, the prosecution must prove that the obstruction was done “purposely or recklessly.”
NJcorruptionsux May 14, 2012 at 05:35 PM
West Deptford’s ordinance, however, does not contain any such protections. The ordinance simply declares that it is per se illegal for a person to loiter on a Township sidewalk in a manner that obstructs pedestrians. Do you see how much more discretion the police have under the ordinance as opposed to the statute? Do you understand why giving the police this expansive discretion concerns Libertarians and others who seek to safeguard citizens’ free speech and assembly rights? The bottom line is this: The State of New Jersey has already struck a balance between public assembly and expression rights and the government’s need for peace and good order on the streets. West Deptford, as a subordinate subdivision of the State, is not permitted to strike a different balance between these competing interests through local legislation. Accordingly, your loitering ordinance is invalid and should be repealed to the extent that it attempts to regulate adults’ street behavior
NJcorruptionsux May 14, 2012 at 05:36 PM
Further, any other code provisions that you have on the books that regulate adult street behavior, such as “peace and good order” and “disorderly conduct” codes are also likely preempted by state law. 5 It is likely that there is no such thing as a local code provision that can validly regulate adult street conduct. See, New Jersey Law Journal, "Yet Another Municipal Ordinance Is Struck Down on Pre-emption Grounds" January 13, 2003, by Mary P. Gallagher. 6 That statute reads: “Obstructing Highways and Other Public Passages. a. A person, who, having no legal privilege to do so, purposely or recklessly obstructs any highway or other public passage whether alone or with others, commits a petty disorderly persons offense. "Obstructs" means renders impassable without unreasonable inconvenience or hazard. No person shall be deemed guilty of recklessly obstructing in violation of this subsection solely because of a gathering of persons to hear him speak or otherwise communicate, or solely because of being a member of such a gathering.
NJcorruptionsux May 14, 2012 at 05:37 PM
b. A person in a gathering commits a petty disorderly persons offense if he refuses to obey a reasonable official request or order to move: (1) To prevent obstruction of a highway or other public passage; or (2) To maintain public safety by dispersing those gathered in dangerous proximity to a fire or other hazard. An order to move, addressed to a person whose speech or other lawful behavior attracts an obstructing audience, shall not be deemed reasonable if the obstruction can be readily remedied by police control of the size or location of the gathering.” 3 Would you please ask your municipal attorney to review and report on the validity of West Deptford’s loitering provision, as well as any other code provisions that seek to regulate adult “street conduct” and let me know the results of that review? Thank you for your attention to this matter. We look forward to receiving your or your attorney’s response.
CRACKER May 14, 2012 at 08:08 PM
WHO CARES ?
B. McIlvaine May 14, 2012 at 08:55 PM
"Crimes" are not heard on the Municipal Court level. The Municipal Courts in NJ are considered courts of limited jurisdiction, having responsibility for motor vehicle and parking tickets, minor criminal-type offenses (for example, simple assault and bad checks), municipal ordinance offenses (such as dog barking or building code violations) and other offenses, such as fish and game violations. If people truly knew how many "alleged" crimes (rape, aggravated assault, possession with intent to distribute, murder, fraud over $5000, theft over $1000, etc.) were plea bargained at the the Superior Court level, they would be doing something more than joining another political party and emailing a newspaper. Mr. Cokos, fines from a complaint are distributed several ways, don't assume the state gets a cut, they usually don't, and money laundering policy to make up for budget shortages, and to grease the law enforcement/lawyer axis? Wow, what about those Townships and Boroughs across NJ that balanced their budget and don't have law enforcement? Where are those tens of dollars going? To help pay the salaries of the part time help they have in the court office? This link is available for information on the Municipal Courts in New Jersey. ,http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/mc
Tim Zatzariny Jr. (Editor) May 14, 2012 at 09:17 PM
B. McIlvaine, crimes classified as misdemeanor offenses, such as shoplifting and simple assault (neither of which I'd classify as "minor"), can be, and are, heard in municipal court. Indictable offenses such as aggravated assault and theft (depending upon the degree), can be and are remanded to muncipal court by the county prosecutor's office.
NJcorruptionsux May 14, 2012 at 11:10 PM
Who cares? A lot of people care Crack head...
John Cokos May 15, 2012 at 02:46 PM
B. McIlvaine: Let me define it even further, what we are talking about is a "Cottage Industry" of individuals who feed at the trough of an endless cash flow. It would be a good project to find out just how many individuals in and out of the court system who base their economic well being on this system . I'm stating that the driving force behind the court system that we are talking about as is stands in purely economic and politically driven. You need to get yourself caught in the gears of the system to know that you'll only get the justice you need if you pay for it. I paid for it and came out clean. I only shudder to think what the outcome would have been otherwise. Freud said that Psychoanalysis only works if you pay for, and that goes for most things in life, including justice, Wish I were wrong , but I doubt it.....
John Cokos May 15, 2012 at 03:23 PM
Let me shed a little light on the "loitering" issue. There is a classic example: The Baltimore MD PD is using loitering as a work around to prevent citizens from video recording law enforcement in public: http://radiofreenewjersey.squarespace.com/storage/RFNJ.html In spite of Department policy to the contrary, LEO's are using this a model to prevent public monitoring of their behavior. The stat's on the page show just how little the conviction rate as opposed to the total number of arrest's made are involved. 90% of the arrests for the month in question were for loitering. It's a model that can be used by every PD and political subdivision. It's effective if only for it's harassment value. Cracker, you'll be the first one to end up in a sweep, as your clueless to just how fragile your freedom is. Your not safe with "who cares' your just a victim who hasn't come up to bat yet ....
Relax May 16, 2012 at 02:58 AM
Cokos you really dont have a clue. You apparently felt you were charged incorrectly and you hired a lawyer and won. Whoopie good for you. What you dont understand is the majority of plea bargins are winners for the prosecution and it is a lesser charge for the defense. If they are not guilty they can snd should ask for a trial.
John Cokos May 16, 2012 at 11:52 AM
Man up and post your name, don't hide behind a screen name. Run with the big dog's.
kristine della cioppa May 30, 2012 at 05:03 PM
George -you are an ex cop who totally harrassed me when you where on duty. You told everyone we know "as long as I'm on duty i'm gonna try to keep her off the road""she shouldn't be driving " Who are you to make that decision? I passed MVD tests, went to Moss driving classes, pay $60/month for surcharges to the state & $450/month for car insurance.I am a mom of 2 who does all the shopping,doctors -everything! You constantly pulled me over - you cost me ALOT of $$$ Look- you did that to me & ur not even a cop anymore.Im so glad you got fired! KARMA buddy!
Concerned parent May 31, 2012 at 12:20 PM
If the court is treating repeat offender's like 1st time offender's then it's NOT WORKING!!
John Cokos May 31, 2012 at 12:47 PM
For concerned parent...right on the money on your observation ! It's a travesty of justice for everyone, just make's it easier to get cheap convictions at the expense of the public in general. Due your homework and the DUE DILIGENCE that the legal system requires, instead of the easy plea bargain sham. Beside, the WDPD and the DTPD have a history of shoddy police work that has ended them up in Court with big payouts as the result............

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