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City of Bridgeton v. Jones

Decided: October 26, 1988.

THE CITY OF BRIDGETON, IN THE COUNTY OF CUMBERLAND, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
GLADYS JONES, JOHN DOE, JANE DOE (FICTITIOUS) AND OTHER UNNAMED DEFENDANTS, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On appeal from the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Cumberland County.

Pressler, O'Brien and Scalera. The opinion of the court was delivered by Pressler, P.J.A.D.

Pressler

Defendant Gladys Jones was adjudicated in contempt of court following proceedings conducted pursuant to R. 1:10-2 to -4. She was sentenced to the maximum term of six months in jail and appeals, claiming that the adjudication was attended by fatal procedural irregularities. We agree that the conduct of the contempt proceeding by the judge whose order was allegedly contemned rendered the adjudication void, and accordingly we vacate the judgment appealed from.

The proceedings below arose out of an action for possession brought by plaintiff City of Bridgeton against defendant Jones. Insofar as we are able to determine from this record, defendant had at one time owned various parcels of land in the city, most of which she lost through tax foreclosure. At the time of the proceedings here she was 65 years old, uneducated, barely literate, and employed seasonally from time to time shucking oysters or picking vegetables. Her primary income was her receipt of food stamps, social security payments, and supplemental social security benefits totalling $465 per month, and her sole assets were a 1972 automobile of nominal value and the vacant lot and trailers hereinafter described.

Defendant's original holdings on Colfax Avenue in the City of Bridgeton apparently consisted of lots designated 8, 9, 10, and 11, all apparently still vacant. The City acquired lots 8 and 9 by an in rem tax foreclosure judgment in 1984, and a Robert Weher, whose identity and place in the chain of title are not disclosed by the record before us, now owns lot 10. Defendant has apparently retained title to lot 11. At some unspecified time prior to the July 1987 commencement of the City's possession action, defendant acquired six trailers, mostly from junk yards at nominal cost, but one for which she paid $1,500. She placed two of them on lot 11 and four of them on the city-owned lots, 8 and 9. She then erected a fence of pallets around the entire four-lot parcel. It appears that she resided in one of the trailers and leased the others to tenants. Although she requested

rent in the amount of $200 a month, some tenants paid less and some nothing at all. The problem with this trailer arrangement was not only that defendant did not own the land on which four of the trailers were located but, moreover, she had never obtained a municipal permit for the trailers, all of which were, in any event, in substantial violation of sanitation, electrical and other municipal code requirements. We also gather from this record that defendant had not responded to previous efforts by city departments to enforce its applicable codes and that she had for some time been aware of the code and ordinance violations she was committing. The City's possession suit also demanded the additional relief of requiring the occupants of the trailers to vacate them immediately,*fn1 requiring defendant to remove the trailers on both her land and the City's within a reasonable time, and requiring her to remove the pallet fence.

On August 14, 1987, the return date of the order to show cause by which the action was commenced, final judgment was directed granting the relief demanded in the complaint. All occupants, including defendant, were ordered to vacate the trailers by September 18th. Defendant was ordered then to board up and secure the trailers and to disconnect them from utility services, and the City was authorized to dispose of the trailers if defendant did not do so by October 2, 1987. A conforming judgment was entered on August 26, 1987. Although we do not have a transcript of the proceedings which took place on the return of the order to show cause, the ensuing judgment recites that defendant was present in court with an attorney, and she does not now contend otherwise. The contempt adjudication which is before us on appeal is based on plaintiff's allegedly contumacious conduct following the August 26, 1987 order.

Defendant apparently took few if any steps to comply fully with the August 26th order for several weeks following its entry, and on September 16, 1987, a municipal court complaint was filed, sworn to by the building inspector, charging defendant with the fourth degree crime of contempt pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2C:29-9 based on that noncompliance.*fn2 The trial judge who had entered the August 26th judgment entered an order dismissing the municipal court criminal complaint for the reason that "said alleged contempt should be treated as a civil contempt in violation of R. 1:10." He also in that order appointed the city solicitor to prosecute the matter before him.*fn3 An attorney was thereafter appointed at defendant's request to represent her.

At the ensuing contempt hearing on October 13, 1987, the evidence showed that at 9:00 a.m. on September 18, 1987, the date fixed by the August 26th order for vacation and boarding up of the trailers, five police officers and three Housing Authority inspectors went to the site to padlock the trailers. According to the testimony of one of the officers, defendant then told them "that the City was just wasting [its] time, because she was going to cut the locks off as soon as we left

anyway." That officer returned at 1:00 p.m. and the padlocks were still in place. However, half an hour later he was advised by his dispatcher that a Housing Authority representative had reported that the padlocks were cut. He was therefore ordered to return to the site and, as he testified,

I stepped from the police car and I asked Gladys, I said, what are you doing. And she said I cut the locks off. She said these trailers belong to me, not the City.

One of the Housing Authority inspectors also testified and reported this conversation with defendant as the trailers were being padlocked:

We actually, Mrs. Jones stated to us, she said go ahead and take care of what you have to do. She said no sooner you put them on, she will cut them off and in the meantime she ...


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