There are many fines, fees, and surcharges associated with municipal court-level offenses in New Jersey. People of color are disproportionately affected, since they are over-represented and over-punished in the criminal and juvenile justice system. Fines and fees are especially overwhelming to people in poverty, who may not have the means to make payment.
Case Example: Terry was issued several municipal ordinance violations when he was 19 years old. All violations related to a single incident of underage drinking. After the court found him guilty, Terry was sentenced to pay over one thousand dollars in fines and fees. It took him almost six years to pay off this massive debt.
What happens if I can’t pay my fines?
If you can’t pay your court debts, you may face other penalties. This may include more fines and fees or other forms of punishment. If the court finds that your failure to pay is a “willful violation,” you may even face incarceration.
The court also has the power to suspend your driver’s license if you fail to make court-ordered payments. A suspended license can affect your ability to get to work, school, medical appointments, or court. People may have their licenses suspended due to their inability to make payments from jail or prison.
Your driver’s license may be suspended if you do not make payments or fail to appear in court. This is true even if the original fines were from minor offenses, such as unpaid parking tickets. If you fail to pay surcharges— which are issued once a year for three years by the MVC for certain violations—your license will be suspended.
Will the court consider waivingfines and fees?
Municipal court judges can reduce or waive fines, offer payment plans, allow community service, or give credit for time served. The judge may ask you to complete a financial questionnaire to determine your ability to make payments and provide a payment plan. If you default (fail to make payment) on your payment plan, and are subject to license suspension or arrest, the court may decide that you are unable to pay. The court may then choose to:
The court can only incarcerate you if it finds that default was “willful” and “without good cause.” A person in poverty should not be found guilty of a “willful” or “without good cause” violation if the sole reason for non-payment was inability to pay. If you do serve jail time for default, the court may order credit of not less than $50 a day for the time served.
How will the court collect payment if the debt isn’t reduced?
A municipal court can only arrange for a private company to collect debt after it has “exhausted” all enforcement remedies. This means that you are delinquent on your payments and that your license has been suspended or there has been a warrant for your arrest for a full year. If the court does hire a private company, the collection company may charge up to 22% of the principal debt in collection fees.
Is there anything I can do to convince the court to reduce my fines?
If you cannot afford to pay fines and fees, inform the court immediately. Be prepared to provide financial information and ask about alternate ways to satisfy the sentence. For additional information, contact Legal Services of New Jersey’s statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888- 576-5529).
This information last reviewed: Jun 13, 2018