One traffic stop led to $4,342 in fines. In Louisiana, the justice system benefits. – The Advocate

March 20, 2022 by No Comments

Engrid Hamilton remembers feeling annoyed when the blue lights flashed on Loyola Avenue near New Orleans City Hall.

“I hadn’t gotten a ticket in years,” Hamilton said. But she wasn’t wearing a seat belt, so she knew she’d have to pay the piper.

She was surprised to learn that her driver’s license had expired as had her insurance — $647.50 in tickets that she couldn’t afford.

The tickets began a seven-year odyssey, during which fines and fees grew steadily to $4,342.50.

State law allows courts to assess defendants a 20% surcharge on top of the total unpaid fees as a collection cost. District attorneys can tack on another 20%, while probation and parole can collect 10% more and the Office of Debt Recovery can assess defendants a 25% surcharge.

A trained welder, Hamilton was unable to get work because she couldn’t produce a driver’s license. Eventually, she got help from the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana to clear the tickets. She got her license and is back working.

Fines, fees pile up

The Justice and Accountability Center has recently closed 1,796 cases involving 439 people and more than $1 million in costs in Orleans Parish alone, said Sarah Whittington, Hamilton’s lawyer.

“I don’t know if they understand the reality that someone living in poverty or in a low-wage job faces when they receive these fines and fees,” she said.

Pulling up another case at random, Whittington pointed to costs for a jury fee — jurors are not seated for traffic cases — and charges for building security along with other costs that raised the traffic fines to a point that this client would have to work 62.3 hours to pay off the debt.

“While I am a firm believer in the ‘user pays’ principle, some of whom show up in court often simply cannot pay exceptionally high fines, fees and costs,” Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice John Weimer said Tuesday in his State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Legislature. “For far too long, our state has shifted the costs of our state court system to local government and has done so with fines, fees and costs to keep the system afloat.”

A Louisiana Supreme Court 800-page survey, released at the end of January, shows that fines and fees account for about 75% of the revenue raised in municipal courts and about half the funding for state district courts. The courts counted $234 million in total revenue last fiscal year.

Funding Louisiana courts

Because nobody really knows how much each of the courts rely on fees and fines, the Legislature last year passed legislation requiring the courts to report their revenues and expenses to the Supreme Court. Nobody has had a chance to vet the accuracy of the submissions to the high court.

The Legislative Auditor’s Office points out that only a small fraction of the user-pay costs is being captured. The office is looking for the additional fees being sent to various agencies. About 1,555 entities collect fees of some kind through the courts, including all 64 sheriffs, 18 children’s advocacy agencies, 78 city marshals’ offices, 387 justices of the peace, and three quasi-private criminal laboratories.

In November, Sandra Whitehead, a certified public accountant and the special projects manager for the Legislative Auditor’s Office, reported that 4.9%, or 77 of the 1,555 agencies, collected $70.6 million.

For instance, auditors point to DeSoto Parish, home to about 27,000 people along the Texas border between Natchitoches and Shreveport.</…….



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