NJ court: counsel must be appointed prior to suspending driver's licenses

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12/07/2018, Litigation, Other subject area

In a long-awaited opinion, a trial court in New Jersey has held that the state must appoint counsel prior to suspending a person’s driver’s license due to inability to pay child support.  The court found that while existing NJ Supreme Court precedent from a case called Rodriguez was not exactly on point (Rodriguez found a right to counsel for driver’s license suspensions in the criminal context), "[T]he New Jersey Constitution provides more due process protections than the United States Constitution" and "The New Jersey Supreme Court has [] held that fundamental fairness guarantees the right to counsel at proceedings in which substantial interests are at stake.”  The trial court then held that

 

[B]oth 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 …  a driver’s license suspension is a consequence of magnitude that triggers the right to counsel in criminal and municipal court cases ... While the Rodriguez Court  referenced a 'substantial' loss of driving privileges, this court’s analysis of the private interests involved in maintaining a driver’s license renders even an “indefinite” or “temporary” suspension capable of imposing significant impacts with far-reaching consequences, especially for indigent obligors. Thus, it is hard to justify providing appointed counsel for indigent defendants in some proceedings where driver’s licenses may be suspended, but not for other proceedings. 

 

The New Jersey Law Journal has more on the case.

Appointment of Counsel: categorical Qualified: yes

 

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The NCCRC worked closely with counsel on the right to counsel claim.