A group of people charged with criminal fees filed suit against in Orleans Parish on Sept. 17, claiming that the parish criminal court routinely issues arrest warrants for delinquent payments without allowing defendants their constitutional right to plead poverty.
Despite qualifying as indigent, the plaintiffs allege that the courts impose fees without allowing for convicts to appear hearings to consider their ability to pay. The lawsuit’s goal is to stop this.
“The environment of threats of jail and actual jailing creates a culture of fear among indigent people and their families, who borrow money at high interest rates, divert money from food for their children, and cash their family members’ disability checks in a desperate attempt to … avoid indefinite confinement,” the lawsuit says.
The 42-page suit claims that judges and court staffers have a conflict of interest in demanding payment, because the payments collected are the court system’s primary funding.
“This system of illegal debt collection has been allowed to continue because as Judge (Calvin) Johnson asked recently: who is going to challenge it? The sheriff's office, the judges, the district attorney's office and the Orleans public defenders all benefit from the assessment of criminal court debts,” said Anna Lellelid, attorney for the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit calls the court’s assessment of fines and fees a “serious conflict of interests” that violates the Fourth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
And Louisiana is not the first state that the issue of criminal payment reform has arisen. In the wake of protests earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department issued a report on Ferguson, Mo.’s municipal court system, concluding that it “primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests.”
However, some argue that the court fines are a necessary evil, as law-abiding citizens don’t want to pay for a criminal system that only impacts criminals.
The bottom line, according to Lellelid, remains the same.
“It is unconstitutional to jail people because they are poor and that is exactly what is going on here. This practice has to stop immediately.”