Dept. of Justice complaint: Jefferson Parish court sentences Latinos to overpriced, demeaning English classes _lowres

1st Parish Court of Jefferson Parish in Metairie, via Google Maps

A Metairie courthouse that handles traffic and misdemeanor cases discriminates against Latino defendants by forcing them to pay for ineffective English interpreters and expensive language classes as part of their probation, according to a civil rights complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The complaint, brought by four individuals represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, claims those practices violate a federal law prohibiting discrimination based on national origin — a statute they said should apply to the court because it received nearly $500,000 in federal funding this year.

Neither the Justice Department nor 1st Jefferson Parish Court Administrator Bea Parisi responded Wednesday to a request for comment about the allegations.

The more startling claims in the complaint center around English classes that Desy Martinez, Omar Roman Velasquez, Orlin Urquia Diaz and German Noe George said they were ordered to take — at a cost of almost $300 each — after pleading guilty to traffic-related charges.

According to the complaint, an instructor named Indiana Watler taught the classes at a church in Metairie, packed with up to 40 Latino defendants on probation from 1st Parish Court, who often had to miss work to attend.

The classes were conducted at a basic skill level, although the students demonstrated a range of English proficiency, the complaint says.

The complainants all said they “observed that Ms. Watler sometimes harassed students while they were trying to learn.” The complaint said Martinez saw Watler “taunt students who struggled with pronunciation or memorization, making students repeat words over and over while encouraging the class to snicker at the person mispronouncing words.”

Then, as a final assignment when they completed the course, Watler had students write a letter to their case judge expressing gratitude for allowing them to enroll in the English classes while also outlining what they had learned, the complaint said.

In fact, “none of the complainants felt that the class usefully taught English,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

The price for the classes — held at “Iglesia de Dios Getsemani” — was much higher than the $25 that Catholic Charities in New Orleans charges for a semester of English classes.

Additionally, the complaint questions whether Watler’s involvement with the classes is a conflict of interest.

The 1st Parish Court listed Watler as a “Spanish English interpreter” in a document provided to at least one defendant, the complaint said. If Watler is indeed an interpreter for the court, the complaint said, she may profit from the conviction of defendants she is supposed to be serving, potentially posing a conflict.

Watler could not be reached for comment Wednesday. State records list her as the manager of Louisiana Telephone Interpreting Services as well as I&E Concrete LLC, both of which are based at a home in Avondale.

Watler’s name does not appear on a recently published list of Spanish-language court interpreters who are registered with the state of Louisiana.

In addition, before enrolling in the classes, the four complainants said they paid steep fees for interpreters who rushed them through court hearings without explaining the cases against them.

Martinez, for instance, pleaded guilty to all of the charges she was facing without understanding that one of them was for contempt of court, the complaint says. She had missed an earlier hearing and didn’t realize it, possibly because the notice for the proceeding was mailed to an old address.

Similarly, Roman pleaded guilty to driving with an expired brake tag even though he later claimed to have evidence that his brake tag might have been valid. The complaint noted that Roman was charged $390 “for using the court’s interpretation services.”

Latinos were recently estimated to make up 14 percent of Jefferson Parish’s population of more than 436,000 people. A recent estimate said 8 percent of the parish’s residents spoke English “less than very well.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.