A group of people convicted of crimes in Orleans Parish lodged a federal class-action lawsuit Thursday claiming that the dozen judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court and court staffers routinely break the law by issuing arrest warrants for a failure to pay court fines without a chance for them to plead poverty.
“The result is an illegal, unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors’ prison,” the complaint says.
The civil rights lawsuit claims the court has authorized illegal arrest warrants leading to jail time for failing to come up with the money, with no “notice of how or when they would be released or when a hearing would be held.” It claims that the six named plaintiffs, and others like them, are deprived of a constitutionally mandated hearing on their ability to pay.
The complaint describes an “illegal scheme” in which convicts are jailed until they pay their fines and fees or a preset $20,000 bond. The suit claims the judges have a conflict of interest in doing so, because that money goes into the court’s Judicial Expense Fund.
The decades-old practice in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court violates the Fourth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the suit claims.
“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.
New Orleans is not the only jurisdiction hit with similar allegations or lawsuits. Courts and law enforcement agencies around the country are facing questions about whether they have strayed from the mission of delivering justice and now focus too much on squeezing revenue out of poor defendants.
Earlier this year, a scathing report from the U.S. Justice Department concluded that the municipal court system in Ferguson, Missouri, “primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests.”
The lawsuit filed Thursday takes a broad swipe at the criminal justice system in New Orleans. Named as defendants in the case, along with the judges and the court, are the city, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell, court Judicial Administrator Rob Kazik and Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell.