Let’s shame the scofflaws & make ‘em pay what they owe

By Ron Leir

Have you heard the commercials pleading with New York City drivers to be extra mindful when they execute left-hand turns on Manhattan streets?

Makes a lot of sense to me, particularly with all the obstacles – pedestrians, with or without cell phones in hand, food vendors and vehicles parked at the corner, all potentially blocking the motorists’ view as they make the turn.

Wonder how many get ticketed – or even stopped – by cops for reckless turning?

Which leads me to consideration of local traffic issues, like drivers using some streets as speedways – about which my colleague Kevin Canessa has written.

And that, in turn, brings me to the enforcement end of motor vehicle offenses and how the Town of Kearny is doing when it comes to monitoring drivers who are issued motor vehicle violation notices.

If they admit their guilt – or if they are found guilty of the violation – are they following through by paying the penalty levied for the infraction?  Or, conversely, how many aren’t paying and how much is outstanding?

I tried to learn those answers but has faced formidable obstacles from judicial authorities.

In November 2016, I filed an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request for the following information:

  • Names and addresses of the top 10 scofflaws, the corresponding violations, how much they owe and for how long they’ve been delinquent.
  • Total cash delinquencies owed the municipal court and whether the court uses a collection agency for certain types of delinquent accounts.
  • How does Kearny compare with other local court jurisdictions in Hudson County and in New Jersey in the processing of delinquent accounts?

Citing rules of the court, Kearny passed our request to the Office of the Superior Court of New Jersey which, in a letter dated Jan. 25, 2017, denied our request for data on the top 10 scofflaws because, “the Judiciary does not maintain any reports which would be responsive to this request.”

How about getting the total delinquencies owed the court, etc.? In this case, the court said it can “provide a monthly report containing the name of each defendant who presently owes money to the Kearney [sic] Municipal Court stemming from a Motor Vehicle Offense” and “the estimated cost of the report is $355.”

The Court said Kearny Municipal Court “does not utilize a collection agency,” but, instead, it “issues delinquent notices, proposed [license] suspension notices or notice of order suspending driver’s license, depending on the nature of the matter.”

As for how Kearny stacks up against other municipal court venues in its collections record, the Court said: “The Judiciary does not maintain any reports which would be responsive to this request. Thus, the request is denied.”

I could have appealed to the N.J. Administrative Director of the Courts but I felt it was unlikely I could win so no appeal was filed.

And I wasn’t about to shell out $355 each month for a report which may or may not contain the amount of delinquencies owed.

So the matter sat dormant until earlier this year when I filed a new OPRA request with the Town Clerk asking the Kearny Police Department to allow me to review all current open warrants listing the name of the defendant, amount owed and for what penalty.

Within a week or so, I got an answer – I needed to consult with the municipal court.

So now the circle is complete.

When I first made a request for information, it wasn’t done with the intent of stirring the pot. I actually thought I’d be helping the town – and the court – get the money owed by shaming, in particular, those scofflaws who’ve run up huge tabs at the taxpayers’ expense and maybe – with the help of the KPD – getting them off the roads if they’re still driving around with a warrant out for them.

After all, the town has put a law on its books designed to publicly expose the owners of “abandoned properties” left empty and derelict and potential public safety and health threats by holding them liable for fixing or selling those properties.

I could have done something equally effective by laying bare, for all to see, all the people who’ve broken the law and done nothing to make themselves – or the town – whole again by honoring their payment obligations.

To avoid the apparent overtime expense my request might have triggered, the court should have a way to install some type of computer program that can spit out the relevant information and not burden court personnel with that chore.

I heartily recommend an exploration of such a possibility and then, a reconsideration of my proposal by the powers that be.

And it probably wouldn’t hurt for the state Office of the Courts to be monitoring all municipal courts to ensure that they have sufficient personnel – and the appropriate tools – to do a job that can’t be an easy one.

Learn more about the writer ...