ATLANTIC CITY - Defendants appearing in municipal court have little chance of getting a fair hearing because judges are more concerned with getting reappointed than handing out justice, and the courts are more focused on making money, a former municipal prosecutor said.

Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong heard arguments Monday in a lawsuit filed by Robert Pinizzotto, a former Hamilton Township municipal prosecutor, who claims that the way municipal judges are appointed may affect how they rule. The Hammonton attorney also claims part-time municipal prosecutors should be held to the same standards as full-time county prosecutors, and questions whether those local jobs should even be part time - allowing those who hold them to have other jobs.

Armstrong will decide next month whether the lawsuit can continue.

Earlier this year, Pinizzotto had challenged the Alcotest, which replaced the Breathalyzer for testing a driver's blood alcohol level. The State Police acknowledged that they were working to fix a problem with how the newer test calculates whether someone is legally drunk.

Pinizzotto argued Monday that he should at least be allowed to present his case before it's dismissed.

But attorneys for two municipal prosecutors named in the suit said there is no amount of evidence that could meet the burden of proof to find the current law - based on provisions in the Constitution - is unconstitutional.

The suit was filed on behalf of two of Pinizzotto's clients who have pending cases in Hamilton Township and Atlantic City municipal courts, and names municipal prosecutors Michele Verno and Jonathan Diego. Verno is the prosecutor in Hamilton, while Diego serves as the prosecutor in Atlantic City.

The lawsuit also names as defendants Atlantic County and the state of New Jersey.

Assistant Deputy Attorney General David Bender, who is representing the state, said the claim of a violation of due process is premature, since the cases haven't gone through the court system yet.

"As to the hiring itself, I don't know what plaintiffs remedy would be," he added.

Robert Sandman, who represents Hamilton's Verno, called it "patently absurd" to say that Norman Merrill Jr. - Pinizzotto's client who is accused of driving while intoxicated - cannot get a fair trial because of the way the judge is appointed.

"(The judge) would have to violate his oath as a judge and the professional code of conduct as a lawyer to make that true," Sandman said. "You have unsubstantiated and unproven claims based on unsubstantiated and unproven facts."

"Municipal prosecutors handle 95 percent of every case that goes through our justice system," Pinizzotto said. "There's no reason why they should be held less accountable. They are the very foundation of our justice system."

He also said he intends to provide evidence that municipal fines and assessments bring in excess of a half-billion dollars to municipalities, adding that the figure was from several years ago.

In contrast, "the average Superior Court fine is close to zero," Pinizzotto said. "There are mandatory assessments, but close to zero fines."

Armstrong said she would render a written decision Sept. 1.

If the suit goes forward, she will then hear Pinizzotto's motion to add Atlantic County Prosecutor Ted Housel as a defendant. But Ferguson said that, while the Prosecutor's Office is funded through the county budget, Housel is not an employee of the county. The office represents the state in cases.

That also would raise the question of whether the county counsel or the deputy attorney general would represent Housel.

Contact Lynda Cohen:


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