MacArthur Justice Center Files Class Action Lawsuit Against Gretna, Louisiana for Using “Mayor’s Court” as Modern Day Debtor’s Prison to Balance Books
City-Appointed Court Officials Exploit Fees, Fines from Traffic Violations and Misdemeanors to Generate 13.5% of Gretna General Fund
The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center has filed a federal class action targeting the Mayor’s Court of Gretna, Louisiana for its inherent financial conflict of interest and focus on generating revenue to sustain the City budget.
The suit was filed on behalf of two plaintiffs, Tamara G. Nelson and Timothea N. Richardson, representing those with cases pending before the Mayor’s Court and those who cannot afford the City’s fee-generating diversion program.
The City of Gretna, Louisiana has no separate judicial branch. Instead, violations of the Gretna Municipal Code come before the Mayor’s Court, which, as the name suggests, is completely under the control of Gretna’s Mayor, Belinda C. Constant. Magistrates and prosecutors within the Mayor’s Court are appointed by the City Council and serve at the pleasure of the Mayor.
“This is a staggering miscarriage of justice,” said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center’s New Orleans office. “Individuals come before the court only with petty citations, distributed for their fee-generating potential. These individuals are then prosecuted by an employee of the Mayor in a court overseen by an employee of the Mayor and then made to pay a fee, collected by the Police Department at the direction of the Mayor, in order help fund the same system and its actors.”
Revenue is derived primarily from the pursuit of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses such as traffic violations, disturbing the peace, and public drunkenness. In 2000, these types of arrests were just over 10% of the total arrests made by the Gretna Police Department. Realizing the financial incentive, by 2014 the city had increased those arrests to 60% of total arrests.
The overall numbers of arrests during this period increased by over 480%, despite a simultaneous decrease in violent crimes over the same period. In 2015 alone, 3,245 criminal cases were filed with the Mayor’s Court. Given the size of Gretna, that means an average of one in two households contained an individual with criminal charges.
While Gretna’s residents are being saddled with criminal charges and mounting debt, the Mayor’s Court is flourishing. In fiscal year 2014-2015, fees and fines from the Mayor’s Court produced 13.5% of the Gretna General Fund, which, in turn, funds the operations of the Court and the salaries of its key actors. As a result, the budget for the Mayor’s Court has nearly tripled to just under a million dollars.
In order to uphold this escalation of misdemeanor arrests, the Gretna Police Department maintains a quota of arrests and citations that its field officers must meet, with the express purpose of generating revenue. Officers failing to meet the quota are reprimanded.
“There is no neutral party here. Instead every key actor within the Mayor’s Court is beholden to the shared goal of generating revenue for the City’s—and their own—financial advantage,” said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center’s New Orleans office.
Along with the exponential growth in the number of arrests, there is a clear racial bias in how arrests are made. Roughly 35% of Gretna’s population is black. However, 65.8% of the Gretna Police Department’s arrests were of black residents.
For those who are charged in the Gretna Mayor’s Court, the City offers a diversion program. After payment of a fee—typically $250 per offense—and a “suitable period of probation”, the charges are dropped. However, if the defendant fails to complete the payments in the specific time period for whatever reason, she forfeits all the money paid to up to that date, is terminated from the program and her case is set for trial. The operation of the program is within the sole discretion of the Prosecutor, a City employee serving at the Mayor’s pleasure.
Ms. Richardson is currently a participant in the diversionary program. When she informed court officials that she was unable to afford payments, no alternative to a money payment was presented to her. Ms. Richardson also has debts to the court from prior traffic cases. The Mayor’s Court previously threatened her with arrest if she did not make a payment of $100 toward her outstanding debt. She was forced to call a relative to loan her the money and bring it to the courtroom. The lawsuit requests an order declaring the Mayor’s Court’s conflict of interest to be a violation of the Constitution. It also requests an order offering participation in the diversion program to all those accused of municipal violations, regardless of ability to pay. Finally, the suit also seeks to reverse punitive measures taken by the Court, refunding of all money forfeited and drivers licenses suspended as a result of failure to pay.
“This is equivalent to holding people hostage. The Mayor’s Court is blatantly funding itself and the City of Gretna on over-enforcement of traffic tickets and nonviolent misdemeanors. This isn’t justice. It’s profit,” said Foley.