May 13, 2014 11:50 PM by Jim Hummel and Tina Macias
A KATC investigation has uncovered thousands of Louisiana residents may not be getting a fair and impartial trial as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Louisiana and Ohio are the only two states in the country with mayor's courts, where the mayor essentially serves as judge and jury to enforce municipal ordinances, mainly traffic violations.
But a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court puts the fairness of some mayor's courts into question, and established a precedent that could be troubling for some of these courts in Acadiana.
Curiously, many of these courts exist in communities that have reputations for being speed traps.
It was 1972 in Monroeville, Ohio; a man by the name of Clarence Ward was faced with two traffic violations, $50 each. Ward thought it was biased that the mayor, who was in charge of finances in the village, was also serving as judge and deciding his guilt or innocence and subsequent fines.
Ward questioned whether the mayor saw guilt as a financial incentive for his village.
He took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won.
In Ward v. Monroeville (1972) the court ruled that because a "major part" of the Village of Monroeville's finances came from fines imposed by mayor's court, the defendant was denied due process, the right to a disinterested and impartial judge.
Our investigative team crunched the numbers and between the years of 1964-1968, fines from mayor's court comprised 41.7 percent on average of revenue for the Village of Monroeville.
Using that figure and looking at the most recent audits available, statewide KATC found 20 towns that get 42 percent or more of their revenue from fines imposed by mayor's courts.
Among them was an infamous speed trap -- the Town of Washington, where 71 percent of their income comes from fines.
If you've ever travelled I-49 in St. Landry Parish, it's not uncommon to see a vehicle pulled-over in Washington.
"I was doing 80 in a 75," said George Blakely, who came to Washington Town Hall in April to sort out his speeding ticket. But Blakely, like others in mayor's court, was caught off guard. "I wasn't expecting the mayor, I was expecting someone else," he said.
Blakely never heard of mayor's court.
"I really don't think it's fair, to have the mayor be the judge, I don't think it's fair."
KATC reached out to Washington Mayor Joseph Pitre for comment, but our phone calls to his office and cell phone were not returned.
We also tried to talk to Mayor Pitre at Washington's mayor's court in April, but shortly before he was due to arrive for court an assistant was overheard telling Mayor Pitre on the phone that the media was in attendance and had questions about mayor's court.
Pitre did not show for mayor's court that night, instead relinquishing his duties to Chief of Police Ronelle "Bruce" Broussard, who tried traffic violations issued by his own department.
We also went to Mayor Pitre's home that night. A neighbor said he was outside watering the lawn. When we arrived the hose was still unraveled out front, but no one answered the door.
Mayor's Court in Louisiana
Mayor's courts are established by the Louisiana Constitution, but these courts have very little oversight. The state supreme court estimates that there are 250 mayor's courts in Louisiana. KATC found less than 200.
Even the state's Mayor's Court Handbook states, "Although the Louisiana Constitution expressly authorizes the continued existence and functioning of mayor's courts and jurisdiction is vested in mayor's courts in R.S. 33:441, state law provides little guidance for the day to day functioning of these courts."
The Louisiana Supreme Court doesn't require mayor's courts to report specific convictions to them, like other courts. The only reporting the mayor's courts are required to do is tied into payments they must make to support the development of a statewide court case database. They're required pay the supreme court $1 for every conviction if their population is less than 2,000 and $3 for every conviction if their population is more than 2,000.
Based on that information, this is how many convictions the 30 mayor's courts in Acadiana had in 2013:
The only real oversight the state Supreme Court has, according to the state Mayor's Court Handbook, is to investigate complaints. There have been no complaints or investigations against mayors, according to a Supreme Court spokesperson.
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