New Orleans Traffic Court has always been a relatively straightforward proposition: A cop writes you up for several violations, you admit to something and pay your fine, and the city likely will agree to drop the other counts.
But that kind of convenient horse trading suddenly disappeared a few weeks ago, when city attorneys who prosecute cases in Traffic Court — from drunken driving to jaywalking — began singing a harsher tune, local defense lawyers say. The new refrain: Take your full lick or go to trial.
A spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office confirmed the policy change, indicating that the days of dealing down traffic violations are a thing of the past, at least for now.
“In an effort to reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses, the city has implemented a new pilot policy that would require the penalties for all offenses in Traffic Court to be fully served,” mayoral spokesman Brad Howard said in an email message.
Howard said the new policy would remain in place for at least 30 days but did not say how much more money the city expects to reap from traffic violators.
He said the goal is not to raise revenue but “to ensure our policies are consistent with best practices and consistently enforced across the board.”
The move has drawn plenty of griping from defense lawyers in a courthouse where trials are rare, just a handful each year.
“I’ve had a few cases that were ripe for reductions in the last couple of weeks and I’ve been told, ‘No, get them ready for trial,’ ” said defense lawyer Craig Mordock, who said he couldn’t remember going to trial in Traffic Court in his seven years as a defense lawyer.
“What I was told was there are no plea deals anymore on anything, basically,” Mordock said. “It’s obviously going to create a backlog of cases in Traffic Court. It also handicaps prosecutorial discretion. They have an obligation not to go forward with things where they can’t prove an element of the crime.”
Some question whether the city can stand by the new policy when the Police Department’s traffic enforcement division has been so thinned by the department’s manpower shortage.
For the city to go to trial on a traffic violation, it needs the officer who wrote the ticket or made the arrest to show up in court.
“The city attorney is threatening them with an unloaded gun,” said Patrick Giraud, a local defense lawyer who served 26 years as a Traffic Court clerk, up until two years ago.
“They were avoiding trials on regular cases because it’s hard to look a gift horse in the mouth,” Giraud said of the city. “They were put in a situation where they had to plea bargain because police officers don’t have assigned court dates anymore. It’s difficult to have your officer show up to court on a regular traffic citation.”
Giraud said he expects defense lawyers will push cases to trial when the cops don’t show up, leading ultimately to dismissals of more cases.
A more aggressive approach by the city in court might help compensate for the fact that a depleted force is writing up fewer traffic violations these days, even if the Mayor’s Office insists that bringing in more cash from fines is not the aim.
The city budget projections show traffic violations will funnel $5 million into the city’s coffers this year, a decline from $6.4 million four years ago. That tracks with a report released recently by the Metropolitan Crime Commission that found traffic arrests declined by 35 percent from 2012 to 2014.
According to Traffic Court and city budget numbers, some 120,000 citations were processed last year — a 29 percent decline from 2010.
One way to offset that decline would be to step up prosecutions. Only about 37 percent of the total value of those infractions is collected, according to a recent budget summary.
On the other hand, some Traffic Court denizens suspect the Landrieu administration is responding pre-emptively to a draft report now circulating from New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office, analyzing enforcement of the 1,500 or so DWI cases that roll through the court annually.
Quatrevaux declined to discuss the report’s conclusions, but he said it’s due out late next month.
The report addresses the question: “Does the system we have to enforce the laws against drunk driving work efficiently and effectively?” Quatrevaux said. “Safe to say, we think there’s room for improvement.”
Traffic Court Judicial Administrator Debra Hall did not respond immediately to a request for recent data on DWI cases. Data provided by the court in 2013, however, showed that 61 percent of first-time DWI suspects pleaded guilty to a DWI, while one in four charges were dismissed. Most of the remainder were reduced to reckless driving or another offense.
Just how rigid the new policy will be remains uncertain.
Giraud said DWI cases have long been “very, very difficult to plead down. You have to have a reason to get any type of reduction in a DWI.”
“But,” he added, “say you’re speeding 70 and your brake tag is expired and your license plate (is expired). The city might have said, ‘I’ll throw out the speeding, the brake tag, and you pay the license plate.’ Beautiful. People are happy. The docket moves forward. That situation is no longer happening.”
Giraud said he expected the new policy to be a boon, at least for defense lawyers.
“It still doesn’t solve the revenue problem,” he said.
Noel Cassanova, the longtime clerk of Traffic Court who retired last year after almost a half-century, said the city and the court are wrecking what he described as “a people’s business.”
He suggested that the blame belongs with police officers who inflate citations with excessive violations.
“This almost gets to the point of railroading people now. You just can’t do that to the public,” Cassanova said.
“What do you do with the little old lady that comes down to court with her speeding ticket and she’s charged with no registration, no driver’s license, no insurance, and she in fact has all of that and she had all of that dated at the time she was stopped?” he asked.
“Is that lady going to pay $1,000 or $1,500 worth of traffic tickets, or is she going to pay the speeding ticket? It’s beyond impractical.”
The change comes as questions linger over the very existence of an independent Traffic Court, which according to a 2014 story in The Wall Street Journal is the last of its kind in America.
Quatrevaux, Landrieu, the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research and several New Orleans legislators have argued that it’s time to jettison the local tradition of encouraging motorists to appear in court in person to cut plea deals on routine driving violations.
All have suggested either that the court can do with fewer than its four judges or that it be merged with Municipal Court, which occupies the same building.
The court also has come under heavy scrutiny in the wake of a scandal involving exorbitant payments — approved by Chief Administrative Judge Robert Jones and other judges — to the court’s former accountant, Vandale Thomas, over several years.
The court has since reined in spending, reformed its operations and shrunk itself, Hall and Jones reported at a City Council budget hearing last fall. They said the court’s staff has been whittled from 93 to 59 employees since 2010.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.