May 14, 2014 11:59 PM by Jim Hummel and Tina Macias
Three Acadiana towns get a substantial part of their revenue from fines imposed by mayor's court, a controversial system where the mayor serves as both the town's judge and administrator, a KATC Investigation has found.
In those towns and nearly 200 others across Louisiana, the mayor serves as the judge in courts that mostly see traffic violations. They also assess fines that sometimes make up a large part of the town's budget, which is also overseen by the mayor.
This is done even with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Ward v. Monroeville, that found a mayor cannot be an impartial judge if mayor's court fines make up a "major part" of the town's revenue. Over five years, fines made up 41.7 percent of Monoreville's revnue.
Using that ruling and looking at the most recent audits available, statewide KATC found 20 towns that get 42 percent or more of their revenue from fines imposed by mayor's courts.
In Acadiana, Fenton, in Jeff Davis Parish, brought in 89.4 percent of its revenue from fines imposed by mayor's court; Washington in St. Landry Parish, 70.5 percent; and Henderson in St. Martin Parish, 49 percent.
Does due process in Louisiana need a do-over?
Some in the legal community refer to Ward v. Monroeville as the gold standard when it comes to fairness in mayor's courts. So how are courts that seemingly ignore its precedent able to operate?
"The same thing is happening in Louisiana, we just haven't applied it to our state," said Chris DeLay, a criminal justice professor at UL.
"It's a major constitutional conflict," DeLay said. "The (Town) of Washington and the state of Louisiana are denying citizens the right to due process."
Although there is very little oversight in Louisiana when it comes to mayor's courts, there is a handbook. Jerry Guillot, an attorney who practices municipal government law, wrote the handbook, which even acknowledges Ward v. Monroeville. Guillot says fairness in mayor's courts could vary case by case.
"It relates to the character of the individual and those that the people elect," he said. "There's been no court that's cut down mayor's court, that's ruled against it."
Guillot says there is a system of checks and balances within mayor's court. It's a system that the U.S. Supreme Court and Acadiana's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld in Broussard v. Town of Delcambre.
Defendants do have the right to a trial de novo, a new trial, with a real judge.
"Appeals from the mayor's court result in a full new trial and at the district court level," said Guillot. "There's a complete hearing of the witnesses and so forth."
But others question if that's enough.
"It's not enough," said Delay. "You've already been denied due process in mayor's court, essentially you've been found guilty to fund the city of x, y, z, and that's not fair."
It's an argument echoed by some who've been pulled over and tried in Mayor's court, like Blakely.
"I really don't think it's fair," he said. "(The mayor) is looking at it from one view, I don't think it's fair."
What can be done?
A person found guilty of violating an ordinance should be informed of his right to appeal at
the time judgment is rendered, according to the mayor's court handbook.
And in the Third Circuit, Court of Appeal jurisdiction, (Acadia, Allen, Avoyelles, Beauregard,
Calcasieu, Cameron, Catahoula, Concordia, Evangeline, Grant, Iberia, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette,
LaSalle, Natchitoches, Rapides, Sabine, St. Martin, St. Landry, Vermilion, and Vernon parishes),
a defendant may appeal from a guilty plea.
"If I was one of those individuals, I would want to take this all the way to the Supreme Court as a violation of a fundamental civil right," DeLay said. "Make loud noises, contact the media, contact your legislator, then they may be forced to do something."
Because mayor's courts are in the Louisiana constitution, it would take a constitutional amendment and a vote of the people to remove them.
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