FOR SOME CRIME VICTIMS, JUSTICE DOESN'T PAY

By KIBRET MARKOS
STAFF WRITER

The judgment that a Bloomingdale woman obtained two years ago against the man who sexually assaulted her daughter is technically worth $5 million.

But Richard Russell Smith is a penniless state prisoner serving a six-year term.

Smith is what attorneys call "judgment-proof" -- a person with no assets, savings or insurance. Collecting even a fraction of the award in such cases, while not completely fruitless, ends up being a lengthy and arduous process for many.

"It's not worth it to hire a lawyer for an hourly rate to go after a defendant who may not even have anything," said attorney Robert Hille.

Thousands of judgments remain uncollected in New Jersey, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts, which does not keep records on how much those judgments are worth. But crime victims, their loved ones and others continue to pursue what they believe is their just due.

Plaintiffs who obtain judgments can demand information from defendants about their assets and belongings. Courts can issue arrest warrants for those who refuse to provide details.

About 127 such warrants were issued in Bergen County last year, said Erin Corcoran, spokeswoman for the county Sheriff's Department. About 100 defendants are arrested on similar warrants in Passaic County every year, said sheriff's spokesman Bill Maer.

"I would say nine times out of 10, they make us fight for the information," Fort Lee attorney Natalie Zammitti Shaw said. "It's a constant struggle."

One of her clients, Travis King of Passaic, was hanging out with a friend at the T&L Lounge in Passaic four years ago when a fight broke out and he was slashed on the back of the neck. King received 50 stitches and staples, remained hospitalized for two days and stopped working for a month. He still bears a visible scar.

Shaw filed a lawsuit on his behalf against the bar and its owner, claiming that their failure to provide security caused the injury. In May 2006, a Passaic County jury awarded King nearly $154,000 in damages.

But Tranice Pegram of Passaic had sold the bar even before the litigation began, Shaw said. After obtaining the verdict, Shaw said, she sent Pegram a form that he was required to fill out to disclose his assets. When he returned the form with barely any information on it, Shaw went to court. A judge issued an arrest warrant in December 2006.

Pegram was arrested six months later and ordered by a judge to provide documentation on his liquor license, Shaw said. He was released so he could produce the necessary paperwork -- and hasn't been heard from since, Shaw said.

"I guess the next step would be to seek another arrest warrant," she said.

Pegram did not return several phone calls. His attorney, David Tencza, said he has not technically represented Pegram since the judgment was entered, and has not been in touch with him for months.

The wait is even longer when defendants are behind bars.

Four years ago, Pam Trione's underage daughter contracted human papillomavirus from Smith after he initiated a sexual relationship with her. Smith, who was 30 at the time, pleaded guilty to statutory rape and was sent to prison. Trione's daughter, meanwhile, endured years of therapy and medical care.

"It's the hardest thing I had to do as a parent," Trione said. "I spent a lot of money trying to get that girl to be well again."

Trione and her daughter later sued Smith -- who did not have a lawyer -- and won a $5 million judgment in 2005. They have yet to see a cent.

Some attorneys say they advise their clients not to try to squeeze blood from a stone. However, they say they also look at the defendant's financial prospects before making such a recommendation.

"It's not just the defendant's current financial situation that matters," said Richard Weiner, a commercial litigation attorney in Hackensack. "It's also their financial future that you need to consider."

A 19-year-old defendant with no assets may seem judgment-proof, he said, but may have the prospect over the years of someday getting a well-paying job, acquiring property or inheriting wealth.

Unsatisfied judgments also pop up on the defendant's credit report, forcing many defendants to settle.

"They call us six, seven years later to tell us that they need to pay up because they are applying for a job," Weiner said.

Attorney Rosemarie Arnold recounted the case of a woman who lost a leg in a car crash caused by a drunken driver. Arnold won a $1.8 million verdict on behalf of the client but couldn't collect anything from the uninsured driver.

Four years later, the driver's aunt died, leaving him a home as inheritance. Because the unpaid judgment was part of his credit record, Arnold was contacted when he tried to sell the house.

"My client ended up getting more than $400,000," Arnold said.

"You just never know when they are going to win the lottery."

E-mail: markos@northjersey.com