A group of people convicted of crimes in Orleans Parish lodged a federal class-action lawsuit Thursday claiming that the dozen judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and court staffers routinely break the law by issuing arrest warrants for a failure to pay court fines without a chance for them to plead poverty.
“The result is an illegal, unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors’ prison,” the complaint says.
The civil rights lawsuit claims the court has authorized illegal arrest warrants leading to jail time for failing to come up with the money, with no “notice of how or when they would be released or when a hearing would be held.” It claims that the six named plaintiffs, and others like them, are deprived of a constitutionally mandated hearing on their ability to pay.
The complaint describes an “illegal scheme” in which convicts are jailed until they pay their fines and fees or a preset $20,000 bond. The suit claims the judges have a conflict of interest in doing so, because that money goes into the court’s Judicial Expense Fund.
The decades-old practice in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court violates the Fourth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the suit claims.
“The environment of threats of jail and actual jailing creates a culture of fear among indigent people and their families, who borrow money at high interest rates, divert money from food for their children, and cash their family members’ disability checks in a desperate attempt to … avoid indefinite confinement,” the lawsuit says.
New Orleans is not the only jurisdiction hit with similar allegations or lawsuits. Courts and law enforcement agencies around the country are facing questions about whether they have strayed from the mission of delivering justice and now focus too much on squeezing revenue out of poor defendants.
Earlier this year, a scathing report from the U.S. Justice Department concluded that the municipal court system in Ferguson, Missouri, “primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests.”
The lawsuit filed Thursday takes a broad swipe at the criminal justice system in New Orleans. Named as defendants in the case, along with the judges and the court, are the city, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell, court Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik and Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell.
Kazik, who oversees the court’s Collections Department, did not return messages requesting comment Thursday.
New Orleans attorney Anna Lellelid said the Sheriff’s Office is named as a defendant because the plaintiffs will be seeking, through an injunction, to keep Gusman’s office from booking convicts on warrants for a failure to pay. A Gusman spokesman did not return a request for comment on the suit.
Lellelid said Morrell is named as a defendant largely because of his role in docketing cases to the court sections. Morrell said Thursday he had not yet been served with the lawsuit.
Along with Lellelid and local attorney William Quigley, the lawsuit was filed by Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney with the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law.
Lellelid said similar lawsuits have been filed successfully in other jurisdictions.
She estimated that such warrants have been issued to thousands of people who were convicted of crimes in Orleans Parish over about a five-year period.
“It’s illegal on several levels,” Lellelid said. “We want these judges to put a stop to these illegal arrests and actually conduct a meaningful hearing where an actual inquiry into their ability to pay is held before people are pulled in and arrested on these warrants.”
The complaint also says court collections officials routinely sign judges’ names on arrest warrants for unpaid debts.
The lead plaintiffs in the case are six indigent defendants who were convicted of crimes, including five who remain under threat of arrest for failing to pay fines and fees that judges routinely assess, Lellelid said.
One impoverished plaintiff, Alana Cain, 26, pleaded guilty in 2013 to a charge of theft of $1,500 or more. She was ordered to pay more than $1,000 in fees, court records show, including $600 to the Judicial Expense Fund.
According to the lawsuit, the court’s Collections Department set up a payment plan, for which she was late once, citing poverty. Cain was pulled over last March on a traffic stop and jailed on a warrant for failure to pay the fees, the lawsuit states. She had some money on her, but her plea fell on deaf ears, the lawsuit states.
After a week in jail, Cain appeared in court, and the judge “told her that if she ever missed a payment again, she would have to spend 90 days in jail,” the lawsuit states. The judge who handled her case, Julian Parker, retired last year.
Along with the lawsuit, the plaintiffs submitted a transcript of a hearing in January in which a court collections agent testified that she, not the judges, signed those capiases, or arrest warrants, using the judges’ names.
The complaint echoes an allegation that Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro lodged four years ago as he pressed Attorney General Buddy Caldwell to consider prosecuting the criminal court judges for, among other things, ordering convicts to pay into the court fund under threat of revoking their probation and carting them to jail.
At the time, Cannizzaro was taking aim at the judges for hundreds of thousands of dollars they were taking in the form of supplemental health and life insurance coverage. While calling those policies improper, Cannizzaro acknowledged that he partook of similar benefits when he sat for 17 years on the criminal court bench.
Caldwell’s office declined to act, deferring to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The judges gave up those benefits before any legal challenge took root.
Regardless, the lawsuit claims the judges’ “pursuit of that money has corrupted the basic delivery of justice and resulted in pervasive conflicts of interest and rampant constitutional violations in the procedures for collecting those debts after cases are closed.”
A report last month by the ACLU of Louisiana told similar stories of poor convicted criminals locked up in several parishes across Louisiana, including Orleans, for payment lapses, often after convictions for minor offenses.
Over a 46-day period in 2014, the ACLU cited 44 arrests in New Orleans for unpaid fines and a dozen jailings for unpaid traffic fines. In other parishes such as Lafourche, St. Tammany, Caddo and Bossier, the report cited dozens of “pay or stay” sentences that allegedly violate the law without a hearing to determine ability to pay.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.