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Covid-19 In The Courts

Judiciary Initiative Provides Outreach for Landlords and Tenants During Health Crisis

The New Jersey Judiciary has launched an initiative to provide landlords and tenants with information about court operations as well as available services and community resources during the COVID-19 health crisis.

Through this initiative, each of the Judiciary’s 15 court vicinages are sponsoring at least two landlord/tenant community resource webinars throughout the month of August. Among the topics to be discussed are the role of the courts in resolving landlord/tenant matters, the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants, and the pretrial settlement conference process. “The New Jersey Judiciary is a neutral arbitrator in resolving litigation, but we have a responsibility to promote the community collaboration needed to tackle this challenge facing our state. As part of that effort, we have set up this series of seminars in order to provide all parties the information and resources needed to reach the best possible outcome for their cases,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts.

A recent webinar kicking off the virtual outreach sessions included representatives from the Judiciary, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, Legal Services of New Jersey and the New Jersey Apartment Association. The vicinage seminars will provide information about county-specific services and resources and allows landlords and tenants to ask general questions about how to resolve their cases.

Individual cases will not be discussed. Under an executive order from the Governor, evictions of residential tenants are currently suspended until 60 days after the conclusion of the COVID-19 public health emergency and state of emergencies.

A Supreme Court’s July 14 order prohibits evictions based on nonpayment of rent. The order allows eviction trials to be held only in the event of the death of a tenant or if the court determines the existence of an emergency, such as documented violence, criminal activity, or other health and safety concerns. Several counties are holding virtual settlement conferences, which also will be offered statewide in the coming weeks.

While all parties are encouraged to participate in the pretrial settlement process, either party can decline to participate without penalty.

A full schedule of webinars is available at njcourts.gov

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In The Courts Recent News

Municipal Court Changes Allow for Case Resolution Without In-Person Appearance

The public can now ask a prosecutor to review their matters and may be able to resolve their case without having to appear in person, under a recent change to municipal court operations in New Jersey.

The Judiciary’s Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) program, which started in mid-May in approximately 30 municipal courts, allows court users to dispute a charge and provide information or evidence to municipal prosecutors online.

“These changes are part of a larger effort to make our municipal court system more efficient and more accessible,” said Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. “Court users should not have to find childcare or take a day off from work to travel to the courthouse to speak to a prosecutor and try to resolve traffic offenses or routine matters.”

The ODR program applies to 37 traffic offenses, such as speeding, failure to have an insurance card, or failure to yield, where defendants commonly provide additional documentation and seek a reduced charge before pleading guilty.

Court users can make their requests for review to the municipal prosecutor through NJMC Direct. After reviewing the case, the prosecutor can offer a lesser charge or decline to change the charge.

If a lesser charge is accepted, the matter will be reviewed by a judge for approval. If approved,the defendant does not need to go to court.

If the prosecutor declines to offer a lesser charge, or the judge does not approve the new charge, a hearing date is scheduled for the defendant to appear remotely.

Additional courts will offer the program over the next several weeks as the program expands statewide.

Under a second change that went into effect on April 27, 400 minor offenses were added to the Statewide Violations Bureau Schedule. The new offenses include some minor traffic and parking matters as well as state Fish and Game and Weights and Measures violations.

For these, defendants can plead guilty and pay online without having to go to court.

In one of the Judiciary’s first actions to reduce municipal court appearances to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the Supreme Court on March 16 relaxed court rules that had required only those with “undue hardship” to plead guilty by mail to certain offenses in municipal court.

Plea-by-mail does not apply to serious offenses, including those resulting in the likelihood of a driver’s license suspension, jail time or community service.

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In The Courts Recent News

Authorities Charge Williamstown Middle School Teacher With Official Misconduct, Sexual Assault & Endangering the Welfare of a Child

On July 24, 2020, Paul VanHouten, an employee of the Williamstown Middle School, has been criminally charged by the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office with Official Misconduct, Sexual Assault, and Endangering the Welfare of a Child after a five-month long investigation assisted by both the Monroe Township Police Department and the Monroe Township School District.

VanHouten, a teacher in the Monroe Township School District since 1989, was assigned as a Science teacher. VanHouten surrendered at the Monroe Township Police Department on July 24, 2020 and was lodged in the Salem County Correctional Facility pending a court date.

The allegations against VanHouten were reported to law enforcement by the victim’s mother. VanHouten was suspended with pay by the District on February 28, 2020.

According to the charges, VanHouten, in a supervisory role, did sexually assault a 12-year-old student specifically by touching her breasts over the clothes after following her into a storage closet in the classroom. Following the assault, he threatened that if she told he would fail her in class.

Despite these charges, every defendant is presumed innocent, unless and until found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, following a trial at which the defendant has all of their rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and State Law.

In April, 2018, N.J.com reported that a municipal court judge dismissed a harassment charge filed against VanHouten, who had been charged with spreading a Facebook “threat.

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Feature Stories In The Courts

New Jersey Judiciary to Resume Jury Trials Incrementally in September


The New Jersey Judiciary will resume jury trials incrementally in September, the Supreme Court announced in an order issued on July 22, 2020.

The plan is to use a combination of remote and in-person proceedings to select juries, and to conduct live trials with social distancing in courthouses.

Criminal and civil trials have been suspended in New Jersey for nearly four months. Today, 4,749 defendants remain in jail pretrial, more than 2,700 of whom have been indicted, and a far larger number of civil litigants also await the resumption of trials.

The plan will allow cases to move forward while still protecting the public during the COVID-19 health crisis.

“This is a temporary solution to an unprecedented situation,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said. “We cannot predict when jury trials will be able to resume in the same manner they were held pre-COVID 19. Nor can we leave them on hold indefinitely. The Judiciary has a responsibility to ensure the fair and timely administration of justice, and resuming jury trials is a key part of fulfilling that responsibility.”

To ensure the health and safety of jurors and others, extra care must be taken at all phases, and multiple courtrooms will be needed for each trial.

That will present severe space restrictions at courthouses throughout the State. To address those practical concerns, the Judiciary plans to conduct jury selection through a hybrid process done both virtually and in-person. The presentation of evidence at trial will take place in court.

Even with those measures, the Judiciary does not expect to be able to conduct more than one to three trials at a time in any courthouse.

In order to avoid bringing in large groups of prospective jurors, initial questioning of potential jurors will be conducted virtually in the presence of the judge and attorneys from both parties. The in-person phase of jury selection will be conducted observing social distancing requirements and with jurors and others generally required to wear masks.

When the selection process has been completed, jurors will be empaneled for a socially distanced in-person trial, which will be conducted in accordance with public health guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Jersey Department of Health.

Empaneled jurors will be required to wear masks, which the Judiciary can provide as needed. Throughout the trial, the Judiciary will enforce social distancing to avoid close contact between trial participants. The plan also provides for designated restrooms and break areas, as well as additional cleaning and sanitizing.

Jury trials will begin first in the Atlantic/Cape May; Bergen; and Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem vicinages.

“Over the coming months, criminal trials will gradually resume in all counties and will expand to include civil cases,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts.

The goal is to conduct at least one civil and one criminal trial at a time in each county in the coming months. Assignment judges and presiding judges will work closely with attorneys to identify the cases that will proceed, giving priority to cases with defendants who are detained and have no co-defendants.

Attorneys and parties will be invited to walk through the physical layout of reconfigured courtrooms in advance.

“By reconfiguring courtrooms and making effective use of technology, trial participants will be able to see jurors both during the virtual part of the selection process and during socially distanced in-person trials,” Judge Grant said. More details of the Judiciary’s plan can be found here.

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Feature Stories In The Courts

Judiciary Celebrates Probation and Pretrial Services Week

The New Jersey Judiciary is recognizing Probation and Pretrial Services Week by celebrating the work of professionals whose efforts to rehabilitate adult and juvenile offenders also protect the safety of the community.

The theme of the celebration, which runs July 19-25, is “Restoring Trust, Creating Hope.” “Even in the face of a health crisis that makes contact difficult, our officers have stayed connected to their clients through a greater use of technology in order to make positive changes,” said Judge Glenn A. Grant, acting administrative director of the courts. “We have heard countless stories about the creative efforts of probation officers as they help individuals in their return to society.”

The Judiciary’s more than 1,900 probation officers perform a number of vital roles, including supervising adult and juvenile offenders and ensuring compliance with court-ordered obligations. Those obligations can include finding and maintaining a job, performing community service, paying fines and restitutions, attending school and substance abuse treatment programs, and adhering to curfews.

In Fiscal Year 2019, probation officers served 93,380 clients. They supervised 49,485 adults and 3,735 juveniles. They conducted 26,405 inspections and 74,780 visits to clients’ homes. Probation clients performed 603,110 hours of community service.

Rashad Shabaka-Burns, director of Probation Services, said the work of probation officers has become even more meaningful during the COVID-19 pandemic. “In recognition of Probation and Pretrial Services Week, we take this opportunity to celebrate the work of our community supervision and child support staff. Traditionally, their work presents many challenges, but this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been especially challenged to adapt to an ever-changing situation,” Shabaka-Burns said. “Throughout this crisis, our officers continue to provide services to our clients while balancing community supervision, child support services and public health concerns.”

He said probation division staff, working with the criminal division, an outpatient treatment program and an inpatient facility, were able to place a client who tested positive for fentanyl multiple times at his outpatient treatment program into an inpatient treatment program within two days. “This was an incredibly quick turnaround time for a situation that usually would have taken a couple of weeks under normal circumstances. It was a remarkable achievement under the current circumstances,” he said.

He noted the creativity of the officers to keep their clients on track during the pandemic. One officer, he said, texts inspirational quotes to clients to help them stay positive. It has been so well received that now some clients are suggesting quotes for her to send, he said.

Other officers have convinced clients with bench warrants to surrender to authorities in order to receive the services they need. They have held conversations with clients about COVID-19 to help allay their fears and keep them in treatment.

They have checked in with clients to let them know they’re not alone during this health crisis. Jennifer Perez, director of Trial Court Services, said the work of pretrial services staff has been instrumental during this time.

The office of pretrial services was created in 2017 to support the operation of Criminal Justice Reform.

Its staff of more than 300 pretrial services officers and supervisors keep in contact with defendants awaiting trial in their community rather than in jail. They provide information on local services, check in with defendants regularly, and remind them of upcoming court dates and the requirements to follow during their pretrial release.

Pretrial services, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, conducts public safety assessments and monitors defendants who are released on conditions imposed by the court.

If not for their efforts, more defendants who are presumed innocent would await their trial date in jail with potential exposure to health risks during the pandemic.

In 2019, pretrial services staff maintained contact with more than 40,000 defendants on pretrial monitoring. “Four years into Criminal Justice Reform, out pretrial services staff continues to serve as the backbone of a system that addresses defendants based on risk rather than on their ability to pay bail,” Perez said. “In the early stages of the current pandemic, pretrial services had to quickly move to a new model of remote reporting statewide.

They did so while maintaining contacts with the defendants they monitor, allowing those defendants to continue to engage in work or care for family. We appreciate their daily efforts toward creating a fairer criminal justice system.”