The so-called diversion of traffic tickets in DeSoto Parish has siphoned away more than $1 million from the local criminal justice system over the past year, according to a new legislative audit that questions a controversial practice among Louisiana district attorneys.
The audit, released this week, highlighted poor accounting and other problems with the administration of the diversion program. But it did not find that prosecutors violated state law in charging ticketed drivers a $200 fee to dismiss citations issued through the Local Area Compensated Enforcement highway safety initiative, known as LACE.
While it focused on DeSoto Parish, the investigative audit has been closely watched by district attorneys around the state and critics of pretrial diversion who have assailed the widely used practice as "justice for sale."
District attorneys in several parishes have relied on LACE to generate revenue for their offices, drawing criticism from criminal justice stakeholders, like public defenders, who receive funding from the court costs generated by regularly adjudicated traffic tickets.
District attorneys contend they should not be required to share the proceeds of LACE tickets because their offices pay the off-duty police officers and state troopers who work the extra-duty shifts that generate the tickets. But the practice has sharply reduced the amount of money generated by regular traffic tickets in several parishes.
The controversy caught the attention of Louisiana's chief Supreme Court justice, who in March asked every district attorney in the state to submit three years of data to show how often prosecutors are steering cases away from the courtroom and into pretrial diversion programs.
Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an ethics complaint against four Louisiana district attorneys, claiming their diversion programs amounted to an improper "money-making enterprise."
State auditors did not find that Gary Evans, the DeSoto Parish district attorney, had used diversion money to fund any function of his office other than the program itself. But they determined that Evans collected "excessive and unreasonable" fees, citing a balance of more than $340,000 that the office took in from motorists but hasn't used for any purpose.
If the 3,600-plus DeSoto motorists who entered the program last year had not been offered diversion, the auditors wrote, their "fines and court costs due would have resulted in revenue of $1.07 million that would have been distributed to the Criminal Court Fund, (DeSoto Parish Sheriff's Office), the DA and 11 other agencies/organizations" in the northwest Louisiana parish.
To appease local public defenders, Evans recently agreed to pay $45 per diverted ticket to the Public Defenders Office to offset the payments for court costs that agency stopped receiving after Evans took over the LACE program in 2017 and began instructing ticketed motorists to make payments directly to the District Attorney's Office.
A state district court judge struck down that agreement last month, saying it created an unconstitutional conflict of interest because the public defenders in DeSoto Parish would owe "duties to a party whose interests are adverse to those of the defendant."
The legislative audit also called into question the legality of that deal, noting that state law limits district attorneys' use of pretrial diversion funds to "the support and maintenance of victims assistance and/or the diversionary programs."
Some district attorneys have acknowledged using diversion funds for other functions in their offices, but that has not been the case in DeSoto Parish.
Evans, in his response to the audit, argued that his diversion program — and the issuance of LACE tickets — has improved public safety. He noted that there was only one traffic fatality in his parish during the first half of last year, when officers were regularly working LACE details. That number rose to five in the second half of the year, he wrote, when the program had been suspended.
He did not provide fatality statistics from other years.
"Paying the costs for extra police details ultimately takes from one government agency and gives to another," Evans wrote. "But extra police details are providing services directly to the people of DeSoto Parish."