So what’s $140 worth to you? If you found that much money stuffed in a coat you hadn’t worn in years, what would you do with it? Take your significant other out to dinner? Go on a minor spending spree at a bookstore?
Or look at it another way: If you had a problem that could go away for $140, how long would you miss that money? Until the next paycheck? Until the next billing cycle on your credit card? Chances are, for most of the people within sight of this column, $140 one way or another will not change their lives in any significant way.
That said, and with $140 on the line as a result of a traffic ticket imposed by a traffic camera at the corner of Route 1 and Franklin Corner Road, I decided to live life in the slow lane for a change and — instead of simply dashing off a check for $140 and throwing it in the mail — spend a few hours in Lawrence Township Municipal Court and raise a few questions on behalf of my fellow motorists.
So I showed up Wednesday, September 11, at 8:30 a.m. “by order of the judge,” Kevin P. Nerwinski. After joining 20 or so other defendants passing through the metal detector en route to the courtroom, I settled in to hear the litany of instructions from the bailiff. Then — no more than 15 minutes after the official starting time — Nerwinski appeared.
While Nerwinski seemed to be of the school that says justice should be swift and sure, he nevertheless took time on this 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks to observe a moment of silence for the victims. Then he took some more time to issue some cautionary advice, informing defendants of their rights, including the possible right to a public defender (one was already present in the courtroom), and warning violators that even a simple motor vehicle infraction could have serious consequences, such as the suspension of a commercial driver’s license or the deportation of a foreigner — a warning that needed to be repeated later on.
As the first defendant — an Hispanic woman charged with several motor vehicle violations — made her pleas before the judge, I surveyed the crowd. It looked like another example of a racially divided society. The majority in this room were blacks and Hispanics. Most of the whites had foreign accents. But as the cases began to parade by I saw a different type of divide: economic standing.
A young black woman, desperate to avoid a fine for failure to wear a seat belt, asked the judge to assign a public defender so she could stand trial. No, the judge patiently told her, the possible fine would be $20 — well below the $200 threshold for public representation.
A young black man reported that he had just gotten out of jail and needed some time to raise the money to pay a fine that was now assessed before him. Nerwinski heard his argument and then pronounced “we are going to do $25 a month” — starting in a month. A woman charged with shoplifting agreed to apply her bail money to her fine and then pay the remainder over several months. She did a fist pump as she left the bench with a sentence she knew was not going to break her. “I have at least one happy customer,” Nerwinski observed. The next defendant worked a similar deal, essentially $100 down and $75 a week to pay off her fine.
Some judges have earned colorful nicknames over the years. Judge Issac Parker, who was on the bench in the frontier days of the late 1800s, became known as the “hanging judge.” Bruce Wright, who was born and raised in Princeton and was discouraged from applying to Princeton University in the 1930s because it was believed he wouldn’t fit in as a black at the elite institution, later became a judge in New York known for setting bail at modest levels. His nickname: “Set ’em loose, Bruce.”
Nerwinski, raised in Lawrenceville, educated at Rider, and a former township attorney and prosecutor, struck me as an empathetic judge who clearly knew his community. Based on my time in his court, I would call Nerwinski (and I suspect this would apply to many municipal judges) the “Let’s Make a Deal” judge.
As it turns out, his ability, and the ability of other municipal court judges to make a deal in some cases, has just been increased. Two days before my court appearance legislation was enacted to give municipal judges the same ability as state judges to assign certain offenders to pre-trial intervention programs rather than jail.
Senator Shirley Turner, one of the sponsors, said that “individuals with criminal records face a broad set of challenges, including barriers to employment and affordable housing opportunities. Rather than permanently staining their record, municipal judges should have the option of choosing alternative sentences for first-time, non-violent offenders.”
For example, if someone shoplifted more than $200 worth of merchandise they would appear in Superior Court and be eligible for pre-trial intervention and get the charge dismissed after a probation period. But if it was less than $200, the case would be heard in municipal court, where the choice would be to plead guilty or face a trial.
A trial is no glimmer of hope for most of these defendants. Ninety minutes or so into our session, a stocky white man appeared before the judge. The legalese of the charges sounded serious and my guess in plain English was that it boiled down to a fist fight, with drugs involved. The defendant announced that he would like to plead guilty — he couldn’t afford to miss work because of court proceedings.
“I don’t want to accept your plea,” Nerwinski told him, repeating the warning he had issued at the beginning of the session. “There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of consequences.” The judge urged the man to reconsider and speak with the public defender.
By now it was after 10 a.m. I could be called next or I could be called after 10 other people. In addition, every so often the court would turn its attention to a video monitor showing inmates at the county jail, getting their virtual day in court. I decided to turn into the judge and jury for my own case: Guilty, fined $140, and payable by credit card at the cashier’s window.
Five minutes later I was free and driving off. Back in that courtroom, justice would not be so swift for the others.