KIYC: Lawsuit filed to contest state’s child support license suspension laws

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Does New Jersey’s aggressive crackdown on nonpayment of child support protect our kids, or does it do more harm than good?

That’s the question at the center of a lawsuit filed against the state. News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane dug into the issues at the heart of the case, in a Kane In Your Corner investigation 

La’Quay Juel says the first time he was arrested, he was driving on the Atlantic City Expressway. “A state trooper pulls me over and says ‘You have a suspended license,’” Juel recalls. “I said ‘No it’s not,’ (He said) ‘Yes it is…also, there’s a warrant for your arrest.”

Juel’s offense: He was two weeks late with a child support payment, which, for parents who have previously been in arrears, can automatically trigger a bench warrant and a license suspension. Over the next five years, Juel says the scenario happened repeatedly. He says he had to keep driving because he needed his job to be able to eventually catch up on back child support.

"What are we talking about here?” Juel asks rhetorically. “We’re talking about debtor’s prisons.”

Attorney David Perry Davis of Hopewell agrees. He is now suing the state on behalf of Juel and three other parents, contending that the state’s policy ignores due process and is counterproductive. “All we’re asking for is that there be a hearing, where a human being looks at the person’s record, hears from them, hears from the other parent and then makes a decision,” Davis says.

But “how many hearings are enough?” wonders family law attorney Laurie Newmark, of Morristown. She says the biggest issue is that New Jersey does not properly enforce an existing law, requiring people behind on child support to be notified three weeks before their licenses are suspended. “If the state would actually enforce the 20-day notice requirement, a lot of these problems would be fixed,” she says.

Newmark’s partner, John Clancy, says anyone who’s been placed on “warrant status” should already be well-aware that their licenses will be suspended if they fall two weeks behind. He says the focus should be on the children and their custodial parents, who depend on child support. “This is the difference at times between being able to buy groceries and keep the lights on or not,” Clancy says.

All 50 states currently have some provision to restrict, suspend or revoke a parent’s licenses for failure to pay child support. But 43 states require a hearing first, and 11 have provisions that can allow drivers to get to and from work, even if their licenses are suspended. Only two states, New Jersey and Ohio, suspend licenses automatically.

But the debate here is not likely to end anytime soon. Davis’ lawsuit seems hopelessly stalled. Both sides made motions back in August, 2016. The judge, Mary Jacobsen, has still not ruled on them. In a letter to Davis last month, the judge said she was unable to provide a date as to when she might be able to make a decision.

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