“Suit Alleges ‘Scheme’ in Criminal Costs Borne by New Orleans’s Poor”

A class-action lawsuit says fines and assessments are applied without regard for ability to pay — to the benefit of judges, prosecutors and public defenders.

Source, New York Times: Suit Alleges ‘Scheme’ in Criminal Costs Borne by New Orleans’s Poor.

The Times story starts:

NEW ORLEANS — Late at night, after the lawyers had gone home, Alana Cain washed the floors at a downtown firm. One morning, a ring disappeared; Ms. Cain, 26, was charged and eventually pleaded guilty. The judge ordered her to pay $1,800 in restitution. He also imposed roughly $950 on top of that in court fines and fees.

She paid in installments, coming to the collections office with $50 every two weeks for more than a year. Once, after too long a jobless spell, she was late with her payment. She phoned the court collections officer and told him she was getting the money. It was in her pocket when the police pulled over the car in which she was riding, citing a broken taillight. There was already a warrant; she spent a week in jail before she could see a judge.

On Thursday, Ms. Cain joined five other plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the criminal district court here, among others, alleging that judges and court officials have been running an “illegal scheme” in which poor people are indefinitely jailed if they fall behind on payments of court fines, fees and assessments. The suit describes how fees are imposed with no hearing about a person’s ability to pay, and how nearly all components of the local criminal justice system — the judges, the prosecutors, the public defenders — benefit financially to some degree.

“The extent to which every actor in the local New Orleans legal system depends on this money for their own survival is shocking,” said Alec Karakatsanis, a founder of Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights group, and one of the lawyers who filed the suit. The funding arrangements at the court have been particularly controversial here in recent years, in the wake of allegations of abuses in the way money raised from defendants has been spent.

But in general, said Mr. Karakatsanis, who filed a similar suit in Ferguson, Mo., in February and helped force changes to jailing policies in Montgomery, Ala., last year, “the effort to fund local court systems on the backs of the very poor is not an aberration.”

A huge story that follows the horrifying stories we’ve all seen about how municipalities–Ferguson, of course, is a big offender and see above, too re Ferguson–arrest people falsely or stop them for nothing, haul them into a kangaroo court, seize their possessions, lay fines on them for the wrongs they didn’t do, and then the fines (and related forfeitures) go up and up and up.

Apparently, this is this monstrously clever way municipalities have come up with to finance their governments. In light of that comment, read again (I posted it previously) this astounding New Yorker story from a year or so ago: Sarah Stillman: The Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture : The New Yorker. It’ll make your hair stand on end and I’m going to assist you in that horror-movie experience by giving you the first couple of paragraphs. With a warning: do not read if you are capable of experiencing human outrage.

On a bright Thursday afternoon in 2007, Jennifer Boatright, a waitress at a Houston bar-and-grill, drove with her two young sons and her boyfriend, Ron Henderson, on U.S. 59 toward Linden, Henderson’s home town, near the Texas-Louisiana border. They made the trip every April, at the first signs of spring, to walk the local wildflower trails and spend time with Henderson’s father. This year, they’d decided to buy a used car in Linden, which had plenty for sale, and so they bundled their cash savings in their car’s center console. Just after dusk, they passed a sign that read “Welcome to Tenaha: A little town with BIG Potential!”

They pulled into a mini-mart for snacks. When they returned to the highway ten minutes later, Boatright, a honey-blond “Texas redneck from Lubbock,” by her own reckoning, and Henderson, who is Latino, noticed something strange. The same police car that their eleven-year-old had admired in the mini-mart parking lot was trailing them. Near the city limits, a tall, bull-shouldered officer named Barry Washington pulled them over.

He asked if Henderson knew that he’d been driving in the left lane for more than half a mile without passing.

No, Henderson replied. He said he’d moved into the left lane so that the police car could make its way onto the highway.

Were there any drugs in the car? When Henderson and Boatright said no, the officer asked if he and his partner could search the car.

The officers found the couple’s cash and a marbled-glass pipe that Boatright said was a gift for her sister-in-law, and escorted them across town to the police station. In a corner there, two tables were heaped with jewelry, DVD players, cell phones, and the like. According to the police report, Boatright and Henderson fit the profile of drug couriers: they were driving from Houston, “a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,” to Linden, “a known place to receive illegal narcotics.” The report describes their children as possible decoys, meant to distract police as the couple breezed down the road, smoking marijuana. (None was found in the car, although Washington claimed to have smelled it.)

The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services.

“Where are we?” Boatright remembers thinking. “Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” Holding her sixteen-month-old on her hip, she broke down in tears.

As will you after you read the entire article.

 

This entry was posted in A. Why sue and who sues?, Law, suits and order and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.