Three weeks after a television reporter was handcuffed and detained while seeking public records about the mayor of a small Iberville Parish town, the case against him was dropped by the town’s attorney, who — in a befuddling arrangement — acts as both judge and prosecutor for the mayor, who also can serve as the town’s judge.
The misdemeanor summons for “remaining after being forbidden” against WBRZ-TV reporter Chris Nakamoto was dismissed Friday, according to an order signed by Valencia Vessel-Landry, the attorney for the town of White Castle, population 1,883.
“I know it sounds like they’re in a different country, but that’s what it says,” said Lewis Unglesby, attorney for Nakamoto and WBRZ-TV, referring to Vessel-Landry’s signature over the word “judge” on the court document filed in the White Castle mayor’s court.
Attempts to reach both Vessel-Landry and the mayor, Gerald Jermarr Williams, were unsuccessful Friday evening.
Nakamoto was detained and placed in handcuffs by a White Castle police officer March 23 while standing in the reception area of town hall and was accused of “causing a scene,” Vessel-Landry said at the time, by pestering a town clerk for records he’d requested pertaining to the mayor.
Nakamoto, the chief investigative journalist for the station, had been reporting on Williams’ annual salary, which jumped from $28,000 to $50,835 in 2015.
Vessel-Landry had said Nakamoto and a WBRZ-TV cameraman filmed a clerk against her wishes while asking for the records and tried to enter a restricted area of the building, prompting the clerk to call the police.
WBRZ-TV News Director Lee Polowczuk disputed that account last month, saying Nakamoto was standing in the lobby of the town hall, at all times in a space open to the public. A video published by WBRZ-TV briefly shows the faces of people behind the counter in the town hall.
On March 31, Unglesby filed a request in the White Castle mayor’s court asking for the case to be dismissed or removed to a state district court. He argued the town doesn’t have the jurisdiction to prosecute a case involving the mayor himself.
“The mayor appoints the magistrate or the judge, who from what we could tell is the (town) lawyer, who would also theoretically would be the person responsible for presenting the evidence,” Unglesby said.
“I don’t think they ever thought through what happens if someone gets a traffic ticket and they just say, ‘No, I’m not paying. I didn’t run the red light, and I want a trial.’ How are they gonna do one?” Unglesby said.
There are approximately 250 mayor’s courts — in which the mayor of a town or village is granted some judicial authority — throughout the state, according to the Louisiana State Bar Association.
Nakamoto had been set to appear in the White Castle mayor’s court at 6 p.m. April 28 in front of the magistrate judge and town attorney, Vessel-Landry.
“It’s always nice to see people do the right thing,” Unglesby said of the dismissal.
Advocate staff writer Terry L. Jones contributed to this report. Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.