Just a couple of weeks ago in this space, I expressed frustration with various statutes dealing with public intoxication. The other side of the coin when it comes to enforcing statutes and ordinances at the local level is what happens in municipal court—more specifically, to those who don’t show up for court and get bench warrants.
I have mixed emotions about the use of bench warrants. I’ve seen bench warrants upend people’s lives. For example, someone misses a court date and months or years later they get pulled over for a broken tail light and end up in jail on the outstanding warrant. Those without resources could spend days or weeks in jail, resulting in job loss, eviction, and in some cases losing custody of children. These life-changing outcomes tend to happen mostly to black and brown people because they tend to be the ones lacking the resources and power to avoid the business end of the criminal justice system. I understand why New Jersey took a hard look at municipal courts and bench warrants; they were right to do it.
While issuing bench warrants was once a standard practice when people did not appear in court for ordinance violations, the emphasis now is to issue Failure to Appear (FTA) notices. It is basically a strongly worded reminder. If you pile up enough of them, it might eventually result in a warrant, though getting it served is another matter entirely.
Whether or not a bench warrant is issued is dependent on the offense; the risk to health, safety or welfare; number of FTAs previously issued, and similar factors. Speed bumps also exist when it comes to bail and payment of fines when fines are imposed.
Given past excesses, there was a need to examine this and curb the worst excesses, such as using municipal courts as ATMs to supplement local budgets. That said, I think we need to ensure that enforcement isn’t completely toothless at the municipal level.
Enforcement of codes at the local level is no small thing. Property maintenance codes, illegal dumping and similar ordinances often go directly to the health, safety or welfare of residents, some of whom are tenants and some of whom are among the very people these reforms were intended to help.
Less obvious but no less important is the fact that these codes deal with numerous local conditions and circumstances that directly impact quality of life at street-level where people go about their daily routines—everything from litter and grass overgrowth to overflowing dumpsters, illegal parking, loud music, loitering, and of course, public drunkenness.
All of this matters a great deal in a community working to improve appearances, change people’s perceptions, and bolster its overall prospects. I’m not suggesting a community try enforcing its way to growth and prosperity, but I’m fairly certain that attracting private investment doesn’t happen if neighborhoods and commercial areas are blighted with litter and trash, unkempt properties, and intoxicated panhandlers.
Police and other enforcement personnel can issue as many notices and summonses as they want, but when these are ignored or the problem that prompted the notice or summons goes unaddressed, smaller cities and towns need the leverage that only the judicial system can provide. Absent that, it just becomes a lot of paper-pushing.
We need the right balance so that enforcement at the local level has consequences while avoiding the worst excesses of the past. Finding that balance needs to remain a work in progress.