BOGALUSA—The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Judge Robert Black of the Bogalusa City Court, claiming he's running a modern-day debtor’s prison.
Micah West, staff attorney for SPLC, believes the problem stems from a lack of funding.
“The judge has to act in an entrepreneurial spirit," West told the Louisiana Record. "(It’s the difference) between adjudicating cases or raising money. This is a problem throughout the state of Louisiana. It’s not funding the court system, shifting the burden to the poor citizens."
The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of four plaintiffs. One of them, Rozzie Smith, was arrested for stealing $5 worth of food to feed his family in February. Another, Ebony Roberts, had been stopped for speeding. The SPLC was actually observing court on the day Roberts and Smith were brought into court.
According to West, SPLC has been monitoring a number of courts in Louisiana since the beginning of the year, not just the one in Bogalusa.
Both Smith and Roberts struggled to come up with the money to pay their fine and court costs. In Smith’s case, Black ordered him to pay a $50 fee to get an extension. When Smith could not pay, he was jailed until his cousin came to the jail and paid the extension. At the time the lawsuit was filed, he had until July 25 to pay the fees. According to West, Smith is terrified that he is going to be jailed when he returns to court.
Roberts paid a portion of her fees, but did not have the full amount.
“I returned to the City Court in April 2016 and paid $262.50 on my ticket for driving without a license after borrowing money from my mom," she said in court documents. "However, I did not have the money to pay fines or court costs on the speeding ticket. Judge Black did not ask me whether I was working or why I could not pay. He did not offer me a payment plan or community service. He told me instead that I had to pay an additional $50 for an extension of time to pay the fines and costs or I would go to jail for not paying my traffic tickets.”
West said Black's decision to jail people over non-payment of fines is a reflection of the state's policy choices.
“Court costs are replacing tax dollars, which makes the appearance that the judge is making decisions based on raising money," West said. "Judges can’t be impartial when they have to raise funds (to keep their courts running)."
Since the lawsuit has been filed, Black and the SPLC have come to an agreement not to jail anyone in the next 75 days while the parties engage in settlement discussions. Roberts and Smith do not have to fear going to jail next month when they return to court and don’t have money to pay their fees. West said that this was the immediate concern when filing the lawsuit, but the hope is to create a more equitable system for all defendants who pass through the Bogalusa court.
West hopes a settlement can be reached, but if the parties can’t come to terms, the case will be litigated in federal court.