Day after day, dozens of people file up to the second floor of Gretna City Hall to pay fees for traffic tickets and other minor violations. A lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday alleges that Gretna balances its budget on the backs of poor residents by operating that court like a cash register.
The suit says Gretna’s court system is rife with conflicts of interest. It also reiterates claims, first brought in a separate lawsuit filed by a former officer, that the Gretna Police Department runs an illegal arrest quota system.
The end result is a city where the equivalent of one out of two households picks up a criminal charge every year and more than 13 percent of the city’s general fund comes from court fines and fees, according to the lawsuit.
The MacArthur Justice Center of New Orleans, which filed the suit, is asking a federal judge to overhaul the Gretna Mayor’s Court to eliminate conflicts of interest and to refund thousands of dollars to defendants. The suit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle.
"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 Eric Foley, a MacArthur Center attorney.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of two women who were arrested on traffic violations. The city, Mayor Belinda Constant, Police Chief Arthur Lawson Jr. and other officials are named as defendants.
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Constant declined to comment. A spokesman for the Gretna Police Department did not immediately return a request for comment.
The lawsuit is the latest in a crop of court actions around the nation targeting fines and fees in local court systems. Advocates have also filed suits against the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and Magistrate Court.
Many of those lawsuits were spurred by revelations from Ferguson, Missouri, where U.S. Department of Justice lawyers discovered rampant conflicts of interest in the court system after an investigation following a police officer's fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
However, Gretna presents an unusual case, given the sheer number of arrests that take place within its small city limits and because of related allegations about an arrest quota at the Police Department.
Citing FBI statistics, the suit says the number of arrests made by the Gretna Police Department "exploded" from just over 1,300 in 2000 to nearly 7,700 in 2014. The city's population remained almost flat over that time. There was a similar burst in arrests for minor violations like drunkenness and disorderly conduct over that time period.
Although black residents make up about 35 percent of the city's population, black people accounted for 66 percent of the arrests, the suit says.
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The suit does not explicitly accuse the Police Department or the city of racial discrimination. But the MacArthur Justice Center lawyer said race is still critical to understanding the operations of the Gretna Mayor's Court. "It’s plainly obvious the majority of people appearing before the court are of color," Foley said.
Gretna also stands out because it handles minor offenses in a "mayor's court," where magistrates serve at the will of the mayor instead of being independently elected. That creates a potential conflict of interest where magistrates have to keep the cash from fines and fees flowing in order to hold onto their jobs, the suit says.
State law provides for mayors' courts, which operate in about 250 cities and towns throughout the state and where the mayor or a designated magistrate hears cases. Louisiana and Ohio are the only states with mayors' courts. Attorneys Raymond Osborn Jr. and Olden Toups Jr. handle much of the caseload in Gretna.
Osborn declined to comment. Toups said he was not aware of the lawsuit. "I’m just the magistrate. I don’t do anything with the money," he said.
Foley said he was not aware of any constitutional challenges to mayors' courts in Louisiana. However, he said, “As long as the mayor is both executive and the judicial officer of the town and collecting these funds for the city, the conflict is clear and still exists regardless of what state statute or local ordinance might say.”
The MacArthur Justice Center suit claims there is another conflict of interest in Gretna. Terri Brossette, a Police Department lieutenant, also collects court fees in her second role as clerk of court.
Foley said one of the most disturbing aspects of the court's operation is a deferred prosecution program under which defendants can pay to avoid going to trial.
It is entirely up to a prosecutor appointed by the mayor to decide whether someone accused of a traffic violation or other minor offense can enter the program. Defendants must pay up in order to keep their criminal record clean, the suit charges.
"What we find particularly egregious about this program is that bare payment of a fee is really all the program requires," Foley said. "It is essentially buying your way out of a charge. So if you don’t have the money, you’re out of luck; you’re going to trial."
The MacArthur Center's lawsuit asks the federal court to open up the deferred prosecution system to poor defendants. It also seeks to force the city to refund money to anyone who entered the program but could not finish their payments.
"Under the program, if you’ve failed to comply with the terms, if you don’t make the payments on time, they terminate you from the program and keep the money you’ve already paid," Foley said.
Gretna continues to defend itself against a separate lawsuit brought by former officer Daniel Swear, who claims that he was forced to resign for refusing to fulfill an illegal arrest quota.
Swear has been joined by three other former officers who claim they knew about a quota system. His attorneys also have produced secret audio recordings of Police Department supervisors discussing their expectations.
In one conversation, Lt. J.R. Rogers reminded a subordinate that he needed to make his "quotas." Rogers said that two regularly arrested defendants did not count.
“Those guys don’t go to court. They don’t pay their fines. I am talking about good strong solid arrests with convictions and/or make people pay their fines," Rogers said.
The Police Department denies the quota allegations. That case is set for trial on Jan. 29.