31 Mar You shouldn’t have to fear arrest for too many traffic tickets: Editorial – The Times-Picayune – 3/31/17
You shouldn’t have to fear arrest for too many traffic tickets: Editorial
March 31, 2017
by The Times-Picayune Editorial Board
Thousands of people in New Orleans are in a legal bind simply because they can’t afford to pay court fines. Izell Mayes was one of those people until this month. He owed nearly $23,000 in fines stemming back to a traffic citation in 1989. His license was suspended in 1997, and what he owed kept rising.
Since driving with a suspended license is grounds for arrest in New Orleans, he has feared being locked up for 20 years. The lack of a license also kept him from applying for a job with the Regional Transit Authority.
But after going to the city’s first Warrant Clinic in early March, his citations and fines have been forgiven. He can get a new license and apply for the job.
Over the course of 13 hours at the Corpus Christi Epiphany Catholic Church in the 7th Ward, more than 1,200 people showed up for the clinic, owing an average of $8,000 in court fines.
Twelve hundred people attended the clinic organized by Municipal Court judges Desiree Charbonnet and Joseph Landry and Traffic Court Judge Robert Jones. Those who showed up owed an average of $8,000 in court fines, from traffic or other low-level offenses.
The purpose of the clinic was to give people a clean start by clearing their debts with reduced fines and, in some cases, community service. The clinic was aimed at people like Mr. Mayes with traffic fines and thousands of others who had outstanding warrants for missing court dates for minor offenses.
The idea grew out of Municipal Court at the Mission, a program started in 2015 to clear warrants and fines for homeless people. Leaders of the non-profit Stand with Dignity wanted to expand that effort and were referred to Judge Charbonnet, who recruited the other judges. The city attorney’s office and Orleans Public Defenders also took part.
“These are misdemeanors, public intoxication, trespassing, disturbing the peace, not the crimes that place terror in our hearts when we read the newspaper every day. People had cases stemming 10 years back, and they pretty much stayed out of trouble all that time,” Judge Charbonnet said.
Judge Jones said it is not unusual for people to end up with thousands of dollars in traffic fines. They might get ticketed for multiple offenses like speeding and an expired brake tag and lack of registration. The fine could total $800. Not showing up for court gets your license suspended, which is a $500 fine if you are stopped.
Virginia Ryan with the public defenders office said a majority of people their lawyers talked to at the clinic hadn’t had a driver’s license since Katrina because they couldn’t afford to pay their traffic fees. “This is a very progressive outlook and approach for New Orleans. The system typically criminalizes people because they are poor. That’s what people are used to,” she said.
It is a progressive approach and is part of a change in attitude toward residents with low-level, nonviolent offenses. The New Orleans City Council voted in January to allow people arrested for minor offenses to be released without bail.
A Court Watch NOLA report last fall showed that 38 percent of defendants in 2015 were held in jail until trial in part because they couldn’t afford the bond set for them. Judges locked up 2,482 people in 2015 because they couldn’t pay fines and fees owed to courts, the report said.
The new ordinance, which will go into effect in April, should help make sure people aren’t held in jail in New Orleans just because they are poor.
Stand with Dignity is planning another Warrant Clinic in the summer. But Anza Becnel, an organizer with the group, argues for a long-term fix. For example, Missouri passed a law in 2015 that limits fines and prohibits a jail sentence for minor traffic violations.
That makes sense. There are serious traffic offenses that involve drunken or reckless driving. But someone who speeds through a stop sign shouldn’t end up without a license and possibly in jail because their fines are so expensive.