Acting Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin today announced a directive instructing law enforcement agencies to no longer, in most instances, subject individuals encountered with municipal court bench warrants with bail amounts of $500 or less to custodial arrest. Instead, those individuals—who are already generally released after arrest—will now be given notice of a new court date and released on scene. Attorney General Directive 2022-6 is being issued today in conjunction with Directive #04-22 of the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). Together, these policies seek both to avoid the ramifications of arrest for individuals on such outstanding bench warrants and to use law enforcement resources more efficiently and safely.
Municipal courts adjudicate traffic offenses, local ordinance violations, and disorderly persons offenses, such as shoplifting, and most result in the offender owing fines or fees. If a person fails to appear in municipal court or pay the money they owe, the court can issue a warrant for their arrest, called a bench warrant. Though the number has decreased significantly in recent years, hundreds of thousands of municipal court bench warrants remain outstanding in New Jersey. If law enforcement encounters an individual with such a warrant, they must arrest that person, even if the underlying offense was a traffic ticket or a similarly minor offense. Not only is the possibility of arrest at any moment disruptive to a person’s life, it can also heighten the tension surrounding interactions with law enforcement, increasing the possibility of more volatile encounters. Moreover, effectuating these arrests and processing the individuals requires significant law enforcement time and resources.
AG Directive 2022-6 provides law enforcement with procedures to follow when encountering individuals subject to outstanding municipal court bench warrants with bail amounts of $500 or less. Generally, those individuals will not be subject to a custodial arrest, a search, or handcuffing, and will sign a bail recognizance form releasing them on scene with a new date to appear in court, unless issuing the notice on scene poses a safety risk or probable cause that a crime has been committed or a pre-existing circumstance—independent of the warrant—justifies such action. In collaboration with the AOC, the policy is also providing law enforcement officers with a comprehensive list of all municipal court schedules across the state, in order to streamline the process of issuing updated court notices.
“This policy represents collaborative, common-sense governance that is both efficient and fair,” said Acting Attorney General Platkin. “Under these protocols, residents will no longer be subjected to unnecessary and intrusive custodial arrests for hundreds of thousands of outstanding low-level warrants—and officers across New Jersey will avoid spending time effectuating and processing such arrests that by and large do not further public safety. I’m thankful for the partnership of Chief Justice Rabner, Judge Grant and the Administrative Office of the Courts in this initiative.”
“Giving troopers the ability to expand their discretion for low-level offense bench warrants will significantly decrease the amount of time spent on the side of the road during motor vehicle stops and pedestrian contacts. This will limit the potential for crashes and keep our troopers and the public safer during those interactions,” said Colonel Patrick J. Callahan, Superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. “By authorizing troopers to issue a bail recognizance form with a new court date, roadside interactions will move along much more efficiently.”
“This process allows for police officers to issue new court dates at the scene, rather than take a person into custody,” said NJSACOP President John Zebrowski, Chief of the Sayreville Police Department. “These are low-level offenses in which municipal courts routinely issue new dates. This directive allows police officers to remain in-service and on patrol by reducing the time spent encountering the public about municipal court bench warrants.”
“The policy to no longer arrest people for low-level bench warrants recognizes the high costs of incarcerating people,” said Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “This change takes an important step in preventing unnecessary arrests and jail time, which disrupt lives, jobs, and families; this takes a disproportionate toll on communities of color. Ending arrests for bench warrants in these cases helps move us away from an overly harsh criminal legal system where a burdensome process amounts to punishment, especially for people who can’t afford fines or bail. We thank the Attorney General and the Administrative Office of the Courts for prioritizing the resolution of matters through the courts rather than through our jails.”
“Attorney General Directive 2022-6 will ensure that municipal courts and law enforcement agencies do not get bogged down addressing outstanding bench warrants for minor bail amounts while at the same time ensuring that such warrants are properly addressed in a just and equitable manner,” said County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey President and Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina.
“It is refreshing to see a directive such as this. In many Black communities, it is commonplace to receive a bench warrant and be jailed due to an unpaid low-level ticket offense. Often this stems from an initial financial hardship and the ballooning costs associated thereafter. The Attorney General’s policy minimizes potential eruptive events between police and residents, while recognizing that someone’s failure to pay or failure to appear in court is often the result of one’s inability rather than ill intentions,” said Gantry Fox, Salvation and Social Justice Director of Operations.
“The State Troopers Superior Officers Association has welcomed the opportunity to work with the Attorney General’s Office and the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) on AG Directive 2022-6 to lighten the tension surrounding interactions with law enforcement and decrease the possibility of more volatile encounters,” said Frank Serratore, President of the State Troopers Superior Officers Association. “The State Troopers Superior Officers Association supports promoting the adoption of policies and practices that afford maximum protection to law enforcement and the citizens we serve.”
Pastor John R. Taylor of Friendship Baptist Church and Chair of the Capital City Community Coalition said, “This is a commonsense approach to addressing a backlog in court processing coupled with an opportunity to build stronger relationships between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve during times of financial hardship and pandemic-related stress. Thank you to Acting AG Matt Platkin for his forward-thinking leadership.”
“This policy allows the decision to be made by the Trooper or Officer at the scene, lessening the time that our members are on the side of the road awaiting a return call from a municipality,” said Daniel Oliveira, President of the State Troopers Non-Commissioned Officers Association. “To that end, it will streamline the interactions that our members have with the motoring public for relatively low-level offenses, and we welcome this change in policy.”
Cuqui Rivera, Criminal Justice Chair of the Latino Action Network stated that “We applaud the Attorney General’s office for this intention and this work. This falls directly in line with our achievements over the years in Bail Reform in New Jersey which also addressed in many ways the disparate discrimination of vulnerable communities. This directive will lift burdens on those who would otherwise be jailed for their inability to pay, it will free up the court system with backlogs and continue the momentum of reducing the mass incarceration in New Jersey, an “All Around Win” on this one.”
“Until cash bail is finally eliminated in all cases, this directive is a meaningful step to ensuring that many people with pending municipal court cases will not have their lives upended through unnecessary arrests and will be given another chance to return to court,” said Yannick Wood, Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
“This policy is long overdue. The lives of so many poor and minorities have been ruined because of the negative byproducts of municipal bench warrants, but this policy presents a way forward,” said Bishop Jethro James of the Newark-North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen.
AOC Directive #04-22, which provides the basis for the Attorney General to issue Directive 2022-6, states that all individuals with an outstanding municipal court warrant with a bail amount set at $500 or less that are encountered by law enforcement shall be immediately released on their own recognizance, even if they are unable to post the bail required by the warrant. The individual must provide updated contact information and receive a new court date, among other things.
Most relevant here, AOC Directive #04-22 gives law enforcement officers the authority to immediately release an individual encountered in these circumstances without contacting or receiving approval from a court. Accordingly, Directive 2022-6 provides law enforcement officers with protocols for implementing AOC Directive #04-22 in an efficient manner that best promotes public safety.