NEW ORLEANS — The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is asking Chief Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson to prevent courts from assessing fees against defendants in what the group calls a direct violation of Louisiana statutes, with the hope of reversing some verdicts that have already been enforced.
“We look forward to (Orleans Parish Criminal District Court) judges exercising their authority pursuant to Article 882 of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure to correct illegal sentences already imposed as a result of this apparent oversight,” the group's president and executive director, Kristen Clarke, wrote in a letter to Landrum-Johnson.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in the letter that it found direct violations in 20 cases in the OPCDC’s 12 districts in which judges had assessed a flat fee for court costs instead of excluding certain fees as dictated by Louisiana statutes.
In the letter signed March 1, Clarke said that as the chief judge of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, she has a “unique authority to ensure fairness and accountability within OPCDC’s operations and procedures.”
Landrum-Johnson was elected in January and is New Orleans' first female African-American chief criminal court judge. Before that, she was the city's first female district attorney. Landrum-Johnson was elected as a criminal court judge in 2008 and was re-elected in 2015.
The letter was titled in reference to “The Imposition of Costs on Indigent Persons in Violation of Louisiana Statutes 13, (Sections) 1377, 138.1,and 138.2” and asks for Landrum-Johnson’s “immediate action to prevent the assessment of these fees to all persons deemed ‘indigent’ for the purposes of attorney appointment pursuant to Louisiana R.S. 15:175.”
“These assessments are contrary to the plain text of Sections 1377, 138.1, and 138.2, which make it clear that judges are not authorized to assess the fees created by these sections against indigent defendants,” Clarke wrote in the letter.
Clarke expounded further in the letter that in the OPCDC’s “Court Cost Breakdown,” the plain language shows that there are three costs that should not be assessed against “indigent persons.” The costs authorized by the Louisiana Revised Statutes are $100, $25 and $14.
Section 1377 applies a $100 fee for any person, except an indigent, who pleads guilty or is convicted of a crime in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. Section 138.1 assesses a court fee of $14 for any nonindigent person who is convicted or pleads guilty or forfeits bond in connection with another criminal offense in Orleans Parish. Section 138.2 is a $25 fee “due to the criminal court cost fund or sentence imposed by the court,” for any non-indigent defendant who pleads guilty or is convicted in the Orleans Parish, according to the letter.
Clarke noted that the organization, a national nonprofit, reviewed a sample of 20 cases taken from each of the OPCDC’s 12 districts. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found that in every case, a judge has assessed a flat court fee against an indigent person.
The group states in the letter that it hopes “raising your awareness of this problem will suffice to resolve it” and asked for Landrum-Johnson to contact the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, "affirming your resolution of this issue."