By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
Louisiana district attorneys are illegally padding their budgets by using off-duty police officers to write profit-driven traffic tickets that can be dismissed for a fee, a legal watchdog said in an ethics complaint filed Tuesday.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is asking the state’s ethics board to investigate and order district attorneys to return millions of dollars they have generated through "diversion" traffic tickets. Standard tickets written by on-duty officers don’t give drivers the option to "buy their way out of prosecution," the group’s complaint says.
"The State deserves more from its elected district attorneys than this unethical scheme to generate profits through the threat of prosecution," it says.
The Alabama-based law center is accusing District Attorney Richard Ward’s office of abusing its prosecutorial powers to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from drivers who pay $175 to get a ticket dismissed and avoid having it reported to the state Office of Motor Vehicles. The state’s ethics code prohibits district attorneys from profiting off the threat of prosecution, the group says.
"Ward is not alone," the complaint says. "District attorneys across the State openly violate Louisiana’s ethics law by using their charging authority as a cudgel to extract millions of dollars each year from residents."
Ward, whose jurisdiction includes West Baton Rouge Parish, didn’t immediately respond to an email and phone call seeking comment.
The law center named three other district attorneys as targets of its complaint: Joel Chaisson II, of St. Charles Parish; Gary Evans, of DeSoto Parish; and John DeRosier, Calcasieu Parish.
The complaint says district attorneys collect far more than they spend on the program. For example, Chaisson’s office spent about $30,000 on administrative expenses in 2017 and raised just over $1 million in program revenue last year, the report notes.
Chaisson, however, described the complaint as "reckless and poorly researched" and denies his office profits off the ticket-writing program.
"It’s riddled with errors and has factually incorrect statements," he added.
Chaisson said the law center failed to note that his office spent nearly $600,000 to compensate police officers for their work on the program. Although the program had a $408,000 surplus last year, Chaisson said his office is keeping that money in the bank to cover fluctuations in expenses.
The law center says the program generates a "staggering" and increasing amount of money for district attorneys. The state legislative auditor has estimated that approximately 30 percent of district attorneys’ budgets come from statewide pretrial diversion and other "charges for services," such as fines, fees and court costs, according to the complaint.
"Sometimes prosecutors use their authority responsibly to divert low-level defendants out of the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment," the complaint says. "But, too often, Louisiana’s district attorneys have been motivated by their desire to generate revenue rather than the attainment of justice."
Kathleen Allen, the ethics board’s administrator, said it can’t comment on complaints unless it results in charges being filed.
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