A chance at a new life: Warrants, some court fees slashed at second ‘Warrant Clinic’ in New Orleans – The New Orleans Advocate – 9/30/17

The New Orleans Advocate

“A chance at a new life: Warrants, some court fees slashed at second ‘Warrant Clinic’ in New Orleans”

September 30, 2017

by Helen Freund

It’s been more than 10 years since Anna Miller had a valid driver’s license.

The 54-year-old mother of five has lived in constant fear of arrest for driving with a suspended license while facing a mountain of court-imposed fines and fees, the result of traffic attachments and warrants that just kept building up.

“Nothing ever seemed to go away. You go back to court and you’re stuck with another attachment, another fine,” Miller said. “It’s discouraging.”

A housekeeper by profession, she said she had no choice but to drive without a license from job to job in order to feed her family, despite the fear of being pulled over and maybe ending up in jail.

“Whenever you’re stopped, you’re afraid of being arrested,” Miller said. “A lot of the jobs I applied for, I couldn’t get because I didn’t have a driver’s license.”

But on Saturday morning, after getting her warrants lifted and contempt fees waived by a Municipal Court judge, things were starting to look up.

Miller was one of roughly 1,500 people who showed up for the Warrant Clinic, a program organized by the nonprofit group Stand With Dignity that aims to help wipe the slate clean for the nearly 30,000 people in the city with outstanding warrants for missing court dates and minor offenses and those facing thousands of dollars in traffic-related fines.

Miller suspects she still faces at least $2,000 in court fines, but she’s hoping that a new court date next week will help to set up a payment plan she can afford. And, after paying a $25 fee, Miller will finally be able to get a valid driver’s license again.

“I still have to go back to court, and I still don’t know how much I owe,” she said. “But at least now I can get my license back and get my life back on track.”

Saturday’s event was the second installment of the program, which debuted in March with support from Municipal and Traffic Court judges, the City Attorney’s Office and Orleans Public Defenders.

The effort is an attempt to help thousands of New Orleanians stuck in a legal bind, saddled with crippling court fines and unable to break free of the cycle.

Earlier this year, the New Orleans City Council voted to eliminate bail for most people charged with nonviolent crimes at Municipal Court, a move lauded by criminal justice reform advocates who argue that the existing system unfairly punishes the poor.

Saturday’s clinic, which was held at St. Peter Claver School, was overseen by Municipal Court Judges Paul Sens and Joseph Landry and Traffic Court Judge Steven Jupiter. Though the number of people allowed to register was capped at 400, organizers said an additional 1,110 people showed up to get on a waiting list.

Participants waited in the school’s cafeteria to be called up in groups of 10 and led across the street to be called up, one by one, before one of the three judges.

Many said they lived in fear of getting arrested or faced hurdles finding employment when background checks turned up existing warrants or suspended licenses.

“It’s just annoying to have to look over your shoulder like that,” said Joshua Burton, who said he had been driving with a suspended license for several years and guessed he was facing more than $2,500 in court fees he couldn’t afford to pay.

Rodney Jackson said he went from making $4,000 a month to less than $1,000 when his license was suspended, leaving him unable to provide for his wife and children. “I couldn’t obtain jobs,” said Jackson, 43. “They couldn’t hire me if I didn’t have a valid driver’s license.”

Eric Yaeger traveled to New Orleans to attend Saturday’s clinic. The 32-year-old said his license has been suspended since 2013, after he spent three years in jail on a drug possession charge. Yaeger, who now works with his brother in Houston, said he had been unable to get steady work without a license anywhere. Asked how he had been making a living, he said, “Hustling. Regretfully.”

Izell Mayes, who attended the first clinic, came to show his support for the program again Saturday. Mayes, who was facing close to $23,000 in court fees dating back to a traffic infraction more than 20 years ago, had his fines reduced to $9.

“My life changed at that moment,” he said. He got his license back the following week.

Those expecting a dramatic outcome like Mayes’ — and there were many — met with different results Saturday.

Most people had their warrants lifted and contempt fees waived but were told they still must go to court to address other fees and pending charges, no matter how petty the offense.

Also, no one from the City Attorney’s Office attended Saturday’s clinic, which drew criticism from some of the program’s organizers.

“I was disappointed that (they) didn’t show up,” said Sabrina Carter, a member of Stand With Dignity. “We weren’t expecting that … but it’s still a new process to all of us.”

A city spokesman said the City Attorney’s Office supports such efforts and will participate in the future.

Holding the clinic outside of a courtroom, where often the fear of being arrested and jailed anew runs high, is an integral part of the program, Carter said. Early in the day, participants were told that, despite some police officers in the area, there was no reason for anyone to fear arrest.

Carter said the group hopes to continue to hold the clinics at least twice a year.

In the months since Izell Mayes got his license back, he said his life has taken a huge turn for the positive. The father of 12 was able to leave his job as a plumber and now drives for Uber and Lyft, with hopes of driving for the Regional Transit Authority as soon as he gets his commercial driver’s license next year.

“It opened up all the doors, and I left all that stress behind,” Mayes said. “I feel like a man again.”