A Seton Hall student said he felt pressured into pleading guilty to a noise violation in South Orange Municipal Court where he was fined $233.
Fifth-year senior Timothy Haney was given a noise violation along with two of his roommates on Sept. 13 at their house on Grove Road. After pleading guilty, Haney said he left the municipal courtroom on Sept. 22 angry and with many questions unanswered.
The noise response report issued by the South Orange Police Department said Haney's ticket was issued at 2 a.m. The report said, "At the residence was a large number of SHU students (approximately 30) in the first floor area and basement. Three noise violations were issued to residents."
During Haney's court appearance he said the judge explained that he could either plead guilty or not guilty.
"He basically explained that any rebuttal you have will have to proceed as a not guilty case in which he further explained if you lose that case you're going to be charged $1,000," Haney said. "So obviously kids are going to be intimidated by that. Personally, I thought that was ridiculous that any discourse you had with the judge would have to be a non -guilty case, you couldn't actually defend yourself at all, (and) you couldn't even speak at all."
Haney decided it would be easier to plead guilty and pay the $200 noise violation along with a $33 court fee.
Before he left, Haney said the prosecutor failed to answer his question as to why he was held accountable for a noise violation even though his name was not on the lease of the house.
"I was even more angry that he didn't even bother to explain to me what the law was," Haney said. "He's the prosecutor, shouldn't he know?"
A message was left for the Municipal Court prosecutor but was never returned.
However, according to the SOPD Chief James Chelel, noise violations are not limited to those who place their name on the lease. They can also be issued to anyone involved in the noise.
"What we do is anyone that's present that's on the lease is issued a summons as well as anybody that's making noise," Chelel said. "You don't necessarily have to be on the lease. As long as you're making the noise you're issued a summons as well."
After hearing about the confusion, Chelel suggested that anyone who feels they are not guilty should plead not guilty.
"Their best bet is just to come to court and try to explain that," Chelel said. "It's one thing if you're on the lease (and) you're responsible for the conduct of everybody that's in your house, but there could be some situation where maybe that person could explain before a judge and they would consider that."
Haney said taking the risk of pleading not guilty and being fined $1,000 was not worth it, in his opinion as a college student, despite the fact that he was not participating in the party.
Haney said he lives in a house where everyone except himself is a member of the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity.
"The cops came and everyone just kind of scattered downstairs trying to hide," Haney said. "They actually saw me coming out of my bedroom so I guess they just assumed I lived there. I just figured maybe if I try to handle it, I'll just take the ticket and that'll be it."
After feeling forced to plead guilty in his case, Haney said he opposes the recently passed ordinance in South Orange that imposes sanctions on landlords who fail to evict tenants repeatedly violating quality of life laws, and feels its purpose is for generating revenue.
"I know that the city council is in debt for a good amount of money and the fact that I had no opportunity to explain to them what happened, it just makes me think it's not about actually cracking down on noise violations, it's about getting money," Haney said. "It makes me think that it's exploiting regular citizens, college students, for paying for the empty pockets of the city. I mean I can't help but to think of that."
Chelel said he doesn't think there is an extra focus on ticketing Seton Hall students. "Most of the kids I think at Seton Hall are all pretty good kids," Chelel said. "I think unfortunately there are a lot of other things that the police department has to focus on as well and that takes some of our time away from that. They're not all geared to just addressing Seton Hall; there's other issues that we have to deal with too. "
In regards to the ordinance, Chelel said violations will be monitored based on occurrences rather than the number of tickets in one occasion.
The ordinance states: "Upon the occurrence and notice of two quality of life violations by one or more tenants or his/her/their guests, with respect to any dwelling unit within any 12-month period, the Public Officer may cause a complaint to be filed in the Municipal Court and/or to conduct a public hearing, on notice to the owner, why the license to operate a rental property should not be revoked or suspended."
Therefore, though Haney's house was issued three tickets in one night, he will need to have another instance of a noise violation to be put up for eviction.
Haney said the fraternity now keeps their parties in the basement and have a designated driver bring their guests home to avoid any future noise violations.
Carolyn Maso can be reached at email@example.com.