Judge hands young New Orleans killer 362 years plus life in prison: 'I think that you are the worst of the worst' _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by MATTHEW HINTON-- The Orleans Parish Criminal District Court on Tulane Ave. and Broad Street.

Dismissing $1 million in fines and fees and stripping court debt collectors of their power to issue arrest warrants should be enough to quash a federal lawsuit alleging that New Orleans judges are running an illegal “debtors’ prison,” an attorney for the judges said Wednesday.

The lawyer told U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance that the 12 Criminal District Court trial judges and Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell have dramatically overhauled the way they issue fines and fees since civil rights lawyers sued them two years ago.

However, attorneys for the group of indigent defendants who challenged the court system said the judges have never admitted that it was wrong for them to throw people in jail for being poor.

Vance did not rule on dueling motions asking her to declare the fines and fees system unconstitutional or to dismiss the suit as moot. However, she did express skepticism that the case should continue much longer.

Vance noted that the Criminal District Court judges, including Judge Franz Zibilich, who was present for the hearing, have promised her that the most questionable practices have been abandoned.

“We’ve got a bunch of judges in here telling me there is no debt, it’s been wiped out,” she said. “It just feels like an empty gesture if I make a declaration that you can’t do the things that you’re not doing.”

The quiet confines of Vance’s federal courtroom on Poydras Street are a world away from the hectic halls of the criminal court on Tulane Avenue. It was at the latter court where for years collections officers issued warrants for criminal defendants who had failed to pay fines and fees, without asking whether they had the ability to pay.

In one case, a woman spent a week in jail for failing to pay $1,000 in fees for a theft conviction before she was brought to court. When she did have a hearing, she was told she would be tossed in the lockup again if she ever missed a payment, despite her claim of poverty.

The court operated in essence as a modern-day “debtors’ prison,” according to the 2015 lawsuit filed by a coalition of local attorneys and Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit civil rights law firms. What is worse, the groups said, is that the court's operations are funded by the same fees imposed on defendants, to the tune of roughly $1 million per year.

That arrangement creates a glaring conflict of interest, according to the plaintiffs' lawyers.

Since the suit was filed, the handful of named plaintiffs have either paid their fees or had them suspended by the court. The judges’ lawyers said that in the future, no one will have to go to jail because a collections agent signed a warrant. Those warrants now go to judges for their consideration instead.

“No one is going to be arrested on a fines and fees warrant that was issued by collections. It’s not going to happen,” said Celeste Brustowicz, an attorney representing the judges.

But an attorney for the indigent defendants who launched the case said that while some of the fines and fees may have been wiped out, the lawsuit had bigger goals.

“Our claims and our concerns are much broader,” said Mateya Kelley, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The one thing that they are not willing to do is admit that it’s a problem.”

Kelley said the judges still have not proved that they give criminal defendants a chance to plead poverty before issuing warrants for failure to pay fines and fees. She accused the court of pulling a “bait and switch.”

“The only difference now is that these judges are seeing the warrants. … They’ve continued to dispute the basic issues,” Kelley said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers are asking Vance to make a judgment declaring the court’s practices to be unconstitutional, which would lay the groundwork for her to hold the court system in contempt if any poor defendants are jailed for failure to pay.

“You should say what the law is. You should say what the 14th Amendment requires,” Kelley told Vance.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432