October 24, 2017
– Any lawyer will tell you that there are not enough hours in the day. Despite this, at CK, it is of utmost importance that the attorneys carve out time for pro bono services, and give back to the justice system.
Senior partner Eric Kanefsky and associate Ray Mateo recently stepped in to assist an indigent defendant who had been imprisoned for civil contempt for an unheard of eight years.
Yes, eight years. For civil contempt of court on a monetary judgment? This is “Debtor’s Prison,” in the very truest sense of the term.
This client and his former wife were divorced in Essex County in 1992, with a comprehensive divorce agreement. In the years to come, CK’s client allegedly violated the agreement, and in April of 2009, after he was pulled over by a local police officer for making a right turn on red without using his turn single, he was incarcerated in the Essex County Jail on an outstanding bench warrant for failure to pay the balance of his child support, alimony, and other distributions to his ex-wife.
The client, however, was steadfast in his position that he was never served with the bench warrant, didn’t owe the money, and, in any event, did not have the means to satisfy it.
Years and years went by. The client remained in jail in the Essex County Correctional Facility with some of New Jersey’s hardest criminals.
According to New Jersey law, when someone is held for civil contempt, the key to their release is in their own pocket. The person needs only to comply with the order at hand to be released, unless they don’t have the financial means to satisfy the judgment, in which instance they cannot be incarcerated.
In this case, time continued to pass (and pass), and to the extent there was ever any question about the client’s ability to satisfy the judgment, it was totally eviscerated due to his prolonged incarceration. Yet, he remained in jail, without counsel and without regular appearances before a Court to assess his ability to pay.
Eight years is a very, very long time to be held for civil contempt of court; there are violent, convicted criminals who serve less time. And since the client was not charged with any crime, he was not eligible for a public defender, or court-appointed counsel, to represent him.
The case came to the attention of New Jersey Superior Court Judge David Katz. He realized that this man needed pro bono representation by attorneys seasoned in New Jersey law, who would recognize the astounding circumstances of the imprisonment and vigorously advocate for release. Accordingly, he reached out to Ray Mateo and Eric Kanefsky at Calcagni & Kanefsky, and that is exactly what they did.
Eric and Ray realized that this man hadn’t been granted the hearings he was due, which would have allowed the court to properly assess whether he must be released under law. Instead of having the keys to release in his pocket, their client had, quite literally, nothing, not even counsel to guide him.
As a result, imprisonment had become punitive, not rehabilitative.
The court agreed with CK’s arguments. As a result of Eric’s and Ray’s advocacy, the client was released from jail, and so ended what might be the longest incarceration of any current prisoner in the Essex County Prison.
At CK, lawyers realize that justice must be pursued for individuals with and without the means to hire sophisticated counsel. We are proud to be able to do our small part on behalf of the latter.