In New Jersey, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.41(a), driver’s licenses were automatically suspended when bench warrants were issued to non-custodial parents for nonpayment of child support. Plaintiffs claimed that enforcement procedures deprived them and similarly-situated individuals of necessary due process protections provided by both the N.J. and U.S. Constitutions in that they: (1) provided inadequate notice and opportunities to be heard before driver’s licenses were suspended; (2) were arbitrary in nature; and (3) did not provide attorneys to represent indigent child support obligors before or after the suspensions took effect. They also argued that the enforcement procedures violated certain statutory guarantees afforded to obligors. Additionally, Plaintiffs argued that driver’s license suspensions disparately impact poor obligors. To that end, Plaintiffs argued that suspensions unfairly punish indigent obligors who are not willfully noncompliant with child support orders and worsen the financial conditions of indigent obligors making it more difficult for them to make child support payments. Defendants countered that the relevant statute and enforcement procedures were appropriately coercive to foster compliance with child support obligations and that they complied with Plaintiffs’ constitutional and statutory rights. Both sides moved for summary judgment.
The Court granted partial summary judgment to Plaintiffs on their procedural due process claim as well as limited relief on their right to counsel claim for the reasons that follow.
Procedural Due Process/Fundamental Fairness:
Because the N.J. Constitution goes further in protecting citizens’ procedural due process rights than the U.S. Constitution, the Court looked primarily to New Jersey precedents to resolve the procedural due process questions regarding the automatic driver’s license suspension process before it. “Indeed, fairness and flexibility are so valued in New Jersey that [the N.J.] Supreme Court has even extended procedural protections beyond those that may be required constitutionally in order to protect against arbitrary governmental action.” (citing Doe v. Poritz, 142 N.J. 1, 109 (1995)). Under the New Jersey Constitution, “[t]he starting point for applying both procedural due process and concepts of fundamental fairness is the same,” and thus the Court considered procedural due process and fundamental fairness together.
The Court found troubling: (a) inconsistencies regarding both whether notice of an imminent suspension was provided in advance of the government action in the various forms and language that Probation had used prior to imposition of any actual suspension; (b) “that driver’s licenses [we]re routinely suspended prior to providing obligors with confirmation of that ‘grievous’ governmental action, thus allowing affected obligors to unwittingly violate the law by driving on a suspended license and exposing them to significant penalties”; (c) “statistics showing that the implementation of the child support statutory scheme . . . has resulted in over 99% of all driver’s license suspensions being accomplished by reliance on the automatic suspension option — the only statutory option that does not explicitly require advance notice and an opportunity to be heard before a suspension is imposed”; and (d) “that driver’s license suspensions affect the poor to a much greater extent than other income groups.” The Court then turned to the Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976) procedural due process balancing test:
- The Private Interest: The Court explained, as the N.J. Supreme Court has recognized, that a driver’s license is “‘is nearly a necessity’ as it is the primary means that most people use to travel to work and carry out life’s daily chores.” (citing State v. Moran, 202 N.J. 325 (2010) (quoting State v. Hamm, 121 N.J. 109, 124 (1990), denied, 499 U.S. 947 (1981)). The Court took “judicial notice of a study published by the United States Census Bureau in 2013 showing that 76.4% of American workers regularly drive to work alone,” which led it to conclude that losing the right to drive would interfere “with the ability of most. . . workers to access their employment.” Further, the Court referenced additional studies and a report released by the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Municipal Court Operations, Fines, and Fees which highlighted the devastating economic effects that further destabilize families and dependents of those with suspended licenses. The Court also took judicial notice of a report that found “when compared to high-income individuals (yearly income over $100,000), low-income individuals (yearly income under $30,000) were nearly four times more likely to lose a job following a license suspension and three times more likely to be unable to pay increased insurance costs.” Ultimately, the Court found that “[g]iven the exposure to severe penalties and other negative consequences that can result from driver’s license suspensions, including an increased difficulty in obtaining or retaining employment and making child support payments for many obligors, . . . the automatic suspension of licenses upon issuance of an [failure to pay] warrant remains a consequence of magnitude no matter the length of the suspension or the ease with which it can be rectified for some affected obligors. Plaintiffs thus have demonstrated that their interest in retaining their driver’s licenses is a substantial property interest requiring significant procedural protections.”
- Notice: The Court concluded that the general notice provisions did not satisfy due process, particularly in light of the “serious direct and indirect consequences associated with the suspension of driver’s licenses.” The Court found it especially troubling that “some obligors may only learn of their license suspensions after the suspensions take effect when they may already have unwittingly exposed themselves to violating the law,” or after “they are arrested for driving with a suspended license” because “[a]t that point, they have already exposed themselves to significant penalties and have been deprived of the opportunity to comply with the law to avoid a consequence of magnitude.” In sum, the Court held “both the frequent lack of advance notice and the total failure to specify the effective date of the suspension when notice is provided to be insufficient under both procedural due process and fundamental fairness principles.” The Court therefore ordered Defendants “to work together to develop an administrative process that ensures that proper notice is sent to obligors prior to the effective date of license suspensions, and that obligors receive advance notice of the dates when their driver’s licenses will be suspended.”
- Opportunity to be Heard: The Court explained that “[s]ince the suspension of a driver’s license is a ‘consequence of magnitude’ with the significant direct and indirect consequences . . . the opportunity for a pre-deprivation hearing is required by due process or, at the very least, by principles of fundamental fairness.” (citing Doe, 142 N.J. at 107–09. The Court reasoned that, “allowing obligors threatened with license suspensions to present individual circumstances regarding their economic hardships and the personally devastating impacts upon them of losing their driver’s licenses would lessen the likelihood that suspensions will be imposed upon obligors with no current ability to pay the support owed.” (citing Jamgochian v. New Jersey State Parole Bd., 139 196 N.J. 222, 244–47 (2008)). The Court further noted that “suspending the driver’s license of an obligor would be ‘erroneous’ if that obligor is not willfully delinquent and the State failed to provide sufficient process to determine this fact.” (citing State v. Beans, 965 P.2d 725, 728 (Alaska 1998) (observing that a statute authorizing driver’s license suspensions for delinquent child support obligors would be unconstitutional as applied to obligors who were unable to pay)). Thus, the Court ordered the relevant agencies to “provide consistent advance notice of driver’s license suspensions to [prospective] recalcitrant obligors specifying a date certain on which the recipient’s driver’s license will be suspended and offering them some time to take action to prevent a suspension or to request a hearing prior to imposition of the suspension.” Citing the “undue difficulty” it would involve to “identify and undo the thousands of suspensions that have occurred and return the restoration fees already paid since the complaint was filed,” the Court denied retroactive relief.
In brief, the Court held that it is a violation of the procedural due process rights of parents for the State to suspend driver’s licenses for nonpayment of child support without providing the parents with advance notice of the action and an opportunity to be heard.
Right to Counsel:
New Jersey precedent requires that counsel be appointed for an indigent litigant when a court action could result in a consequence of magnitude. (citing Rodriguez v. Rosenblatt, 58 N.J. 281, 294–95 (1971) ( “as a matter of simple justice, no indigent defendant should be subjected to a conviction entailing imprisonment in fact or other consequence of magnitude without first having had due and fair opportunity to have counsel assigned without cost.”); Pasqua v. Council, 186 N.J. 127, 147–48 (2006) (requiring counsel for indigent child support obligors facing incarceration “protects important constitutional values, including the fairness of our civil justice system”); Moran, 202 N.J. at 325 (“loss of driving privileges for a reckless-driving conviction [before a municipal court judge] constitutes a consequence of magnitude that triggers certain rights, such as the right to counsel”)). “A driver’s license suspension is a consequence of magnitude that triggers the right to counsel in criminal and municipal court cases.” (citing Rodriguez, 58 N.J. at 295 (“a substantial loss in driving privileges” is a consequence of magnitude); Pasqua, 186 N.J. at 148–49 (“‘the substantial loss of driving privileges’ [is] one type of ‘serious consequence’ that would warrant assigning counsel to an indigent defendant.”); Moran, 202 N.J. at 325). Thus, “both due process and fundamental fairness require courts to provide counsel to indigent obligors at any hearing at which a hearing officer may recommend a driver’s license suspension to a court, or at any hearing when the family court itself is considering a driver’s license suspension.”
The Court dismissed all of Plaintiffs’ other claims. As of April 1, 2019, New Jersey ceased the practice of automatically suspending a driver’s license when a warrant issues for nonpayment of child support.
You can find relevant case documents here.