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Evangeline Parish residents treated like criminals for witnessing crimes

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VILLE PLATTE LA -At tonight’s City Council meeting in Ville Platte Mayor Jennifer Vidrine and the Ville Platte City Council publicly discussed an investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The DOJ found that both the Ville Platte Police Department (VPPD) and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office (EPSO) have been violating the constitutional rights of citizens for years by using what they call an "investigative hold." Both entities would book individuals into jail, without allowing them to talk to family, attorneys or friends. According to the DOJ report, the detainee was often forced to spend multiple nights sleeping on a concrete floor or metal bench and not allowed to make phone calls. 

According to the DOJ report, the purpose of "investigative holds" was to extract information. VPPD and EPSO often used them when they didn't have enough evidence to lawfully arrest someone. VPPD and EPSO would detain individuals they suspected of criminal activity, suspect's family members, witnesses, or anyone else who may have knowledge of a crime. 

"The willingness of officers in both agencies to arrest and detain individuals who are merely possible witnesses in criminal investigations means that literally anyone in Evangeline Parish or Ville Platte could be arrested and placed 'on hold' at any time," states the DOJ report.

The DOJ’s entire report is embedded at the bottom of this page.

In her opening remarks, Ville Platte Mayor Jennifer Vidrine stated Ville Platte will discontinue the use of “investigative holds.”  Vidrine said the city is working on corrective measures with the Department of Justice.

"We want to ensure that everyone in our custody is treated with respect and humanity," said Mayor Vidrine. "I am giving you my word that this is what's going to happen going forward. This is not what Ville Platte is about."

The mayor said all future complaints about VPPD should be directed to Police Chief Neal Lartigue, and then to the Mayor’s Office.

"If you see things that aren't being done properly, go to the chief directly. When there's a complaint, give it to him directly, so that he can handle it himself," remarked Mayor Vidrine. "If you are not happy with the results from that, come to me."

The mayor said she plans to keep the police department accountable through spontaneous visitation.

"It is hurting me to the point where I will be making random visits to the police department--unannounced--day and night," said the mayor. "That way I can make sure that things are being done correctly. Anyone who doesn't like it--too bad."

After her statement, Mayor Vidrine would not take questions from the press.

A Ville Platte resident mentioned in the DOJ report shared what it was like to be placed in an “investigative hold.”  Shawana Deville said she was brought to the Ville Platte Jail because police believed she witnessed the culprit in a convenience store murder in 2014

Deville says officers stripped her, dressed her in an orange jumpsuit, and put her in a cell with the jail’s general population.

“It was horrible actually,” said Deville, “Being in a cell when you know you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Deville says she was held for eight hours, and questioned by both a detective and District Attorney Trent Brignac. According to the DOJ report, Deville’s "hold" was short. The average "hold" lasts three days--with some lasting up to a week.

Ville Platte resident, John Oneail was also placed in an "investigative hold" after his older brother witnessed the same crime as Deville. Even though Oneail wasn’t at the scene to witness the culprit, he was taken to jail with his brother and held for eight hours. Oneail was 16 at the time.

“There’s nothing that you did. You’re just up in there just to put you up in there,” said Oneail.

According to the DOJ report, at least 30 juveniles were placed in an "investigative hold" between 2012-2014.

Over that two year span, VPPD documented more than 700 "holds"—about 10% of their population.

EPSO documented 200 "holds" from 2012-2014. However, due to rudimentary record keeping, the DOJ believes this number could be “just the tip of the iceberg.”

The DOJ report also shared concern that testimonies extracted from a witnesses during “investigative holds” could be coerced since the witness is incentivized to tell the detective what they want to hear in order to be released. Coerced testimonies could lead to a grave consequence--convicting someone for a crime they didn't do. Now, at least one defense attorney is questioning the case against his client. 

"We have concerns that some people may have confessed to crimes or provided information sought by EPSO and VPPD detectives, apparently to end this secret and indefinite confinement," states the DOJ report.

Police Chief Neil Lartigue denied our request for an interview, but during a phone call on January 10 Lartigue commented that "investigative holds" are outdated practices that the Ville Platte Police Department is changing. He also said that at the end of the day, his goal is to protect Ville Platte citizens. 

Neither the Evangeline Parish Sheriff's Office or District Attorney Trent Brignac returned our calls. 

Related Stories:

DOJ: Evangeline Parish law enforcement illegally detained people for decades

Defense attorney says DOJ investigation could affect client's conviction

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