If the state Ethics Board upholds a complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the criminal justice system in Louisiana may be left be reeling and on the verge of collapse in some parishes.
The center's complaint targets just four district attorneys, but they are far from the only ones operating what the center regards as a racket. The board should order district attorneys to return money improperly extracted over several years from errant drivers, according to the center, which is therefore prescribing courthouse chaos all over.
At issue is pretrial diversion, whereby prosecutors give minor offenders the option of avoiding a criminal record if they undertake to fly straight henceforward. In recent years district attorneys have increasingly turned diversion into a profit center by applying it to traffic offenses. A motorist who gets a ticket can make it go away by paying the district attorney a fee, and maybe receiving perfunctory safety tips.
Most DA offices, however, just pocket the money and run, according to the enter. They “do not screen tickets, counsel motorists or provide any rehabilitative programming,” according to the complaint. They do, however, charge enough to realize a handsome profit, which provides a significant subsidy for their other operations. In some cases, traffic ticket diversion fees account for half the DA's overall budget.
Some district attorneys make sure the money keeps rolling in by hiring off-duty cops just to pull drivers over. They even have their own tickets printed up with instructions on how to pay. It makes a lot of sense to do so; that keeps insurance companies out of it.
Those special tickets also include a warning that, if you sign up for diversion and fail to pay, your driver's license will be suspended, which is a lie. Prosecutors have no authority to impose penalties, but then they have no authority to issue subpoenas either and that has not always stopped them.
One of the district attorneys named in the center's complaint, Joel Chaisson of St. Charles Parish, charges $175 a pop and raked in more than $1 million last year from diverted motorists. An attorney general's opinion issued 25 years ago established the principle that district attorneys cannot charge fees that exceed the cost of administering diversion, so maybe Chaisson felt obliged to claim that “we don't profit” from it.
The numbers suggest otherwise. The cost of administering the program in his parish last year was only $30,000, the center's complaint avers. Even taking account of the $600,000 Chaisson spent on overtime for ticket-writing cops, which the center says is not a legitimate diversion cost anyway, he came out well ahead.
Calcasieu Parish DA John DeRosier, whose $7 million budget last year included $4.3 million from traffic-ticket diversion, did not waste time denying that it had a “positive financial impact.” He just pointed out that “we put that money to good use and it's a user-pay system.” There is no reason to doubt that it underwrites worthy programs. But tainted money remains so regardless of how it is spent. Thus, DeRosier may well, in his line of work, encounter a burglar, say, with a heart of gold, but you won't catch him suggesting that makes burglary acceptable.
Scott Sassi, first assistant to Richard Ward, District Attorney for West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes, deftly dodges the issue too, noting that the “complaint is just something filed out there to target a program that we think is working.” Of course, it's working. See how the money rolls in. The question is whether it is proper to sell exonerations at what the center calculates is 9 times what the DA would make from a guilty plea in court. The profits are so healthy that some district attorneys are slipping loot to other criminal justice agencies that would have been entitled to a share of the fines and court fees that the diversion program pre-empts. When that leaves public defenders dependent on the good offices of prosecutors, public trust will evaporate.
Some prosecutors claim that diversion improves road safety, but it can do no more in that regard than prosecution. Pretrial diversion as applied to traffic offenses in Louisiana is just as much of a racket as the center alleges. Pity that the remedy would be such a disaster.
Email James Gill at Gill1047@bellsouth.net.