How a Louisiana speed trap could be a constitutional crisis

New Orleans — Texas nurse Nick Nwoye had never heard of Fenton, Louisiana, before their police pulled him over. It’s how a lot of people first learn about the town.

“I was driving home to Houston a few years ago and had to pass through Fenton,” he told VOA. “The moment I saw the speed limit had changed from 65 mph to 50 mph [105 kph to 80 kph], I began to slow down. But it was too late.”

Nwoye says a police car was waiting behind a tree. The officer turned on his lights and pulled him over.

“He said I was driving 77 mph in a 50-mph zone [124 kph in an 80-kph zone], and there’s no way I was,” Nwoye explained. “The officer had this big smile on his face like, ‘I got you,’ as if this was a game the police played.”

Deciding to challenge the ticket, Nwoye called the town’s court to speak to the judge. That’s when he realized how difficult it would be to appeal the Louisiana fine.

“You know who the judge was?” he asked, exasperated. “It was the mayor. The mayor was his own town’s court judge. So on one hand, he’s deciding whether or not I should have to pay, and on the other hand he’s incentivized to have me pay because this is the money he needs to run Fenton.”

“He told me there was nothing he could do,” Nwoye scoffed. “But why would he want to do anything other than have me pay the town?”

Small town, big revenue

Located in western Louisiana, about an hour drive from the Texas border, Fenton’s 226 residents have a city hall, a gas station, a library, a grain elevator, a Baptist church, a public housing complex and a Dollar General store.

For such a small place, Fenton finds itself regularly in the news.

At first glance, its notoriety might appear to come from being a “speed trap town” — an area near a municipality in which the speed limit drops suddenly and drastically. Police officers wait for drivers to miss the speed change or fail to slow down in time and then pounce, writing them a costly ticket.

When those tickets are paid, the revenue can be substantial. In Fenton, for example, the 12 months ending in June 2022 brought $1.3 million to the town’s coffers from traffic violations. By comparison, that is about the same as Louisiana’s third-largest city, Shreveport.

While speed traps are not illegal, some legal experts caution that a quirk in the judicial system used in small Louisiana towns unfairly disadvantages those seeking to challenge their fines.

‘Write more tickets’

“They have a real racket going on in Fenton,” says Bo Powell, a retiree from Monroe, Louisiana, who was pulled over in Fenton in 2014.

The non-profit investigative journalism group ProPublica obtained and published a recording of Fenton Mayor Eddie Alfred, Jr. telling police officers last September that they needed to write more tickets or there would be layoffs in town government.

“Our main income is traffic tickets, and they ain’t getting written,” said the mayor in the recording. “We need to write more traffic tickets.”

“It’s like the whole village is a crime family,” Powell tells VOA. “Everyone in that courtroom — the mayor, the clerk, the police officer — is paid for by these tickets. How is this legal?”

But a “Mayor’s Court,” as it’s called, is legal in the states of Louisiana and Ohio.

Mayor’s Court

Bobby King is city attorney for Walker, Louisiana. He helps train mayors on their responsibilities in Mayor’s Courts, which have jurisdiction over municipal ordinance violations including traffic fines, but not over felonies or juvenile offenses.

“Mayor’s Courts are important for helping with managing a crowded docket of cases, and for providing a more economical option to smaller towns that can’t afford to pay for a judge and a city court,” King told VOA. “But the potential for bias due to revenue generation is definitely a valid concern.”

A just way forward

Mayor’s Courts were more common before a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a driver in Monroeville, Ohio, was denied a fair trial because the mayor who ruled against him was responsible for both law enforcement and generating municipal revenue.

“However, that case wasn’t a blanket ruling saying all Mayor’s Courts are unconstitutional,” explained Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, which litigates for civil rights in criminal justice. “The ruling said that the law must consider whether ‘the mayor’s executive responsibilities for village finances might make him partisan to maintain the high level of contribution from the Mayor’s Court.’”

Louisiana and Ohio concluded that a mayor could be an impartial judge. For Ohio, where one out of every six traffic tickets are issued in jurisdictions governed by a Mayor’s Court, a federal judge ruled in 1995 that a mayor could be considered biased if at least 10% of the town’s revenue came from its Mayor’s Court.

Louisiana’s Judicial College recommends that Mayor’s Courts exceeding that 10% threshold should hire a magistrate.

“It’s still a Mayor’s Court,” says King, “but having someone else oversee cases could help ensure impartiality and fairness in the judicial process.”

Foley says it’s not a question of “whether there’s a percentage of overall revenue before a Mayor’s Court becomes unconstitutional.”

“Rather, these kinds of courts just shouldn’t exist,” says Foley. “The financial conflicts of interest are too great. A Mayor’s Court is largely unaccountable to anyone, and they lack the safeguards we should expect in criminal proceedings.”

The Mayor’s Court in Fenton generates more than 90% of town revenue. After some resistance, Mayor Alfred agreed in December to appoint a magistrate to his court.

“But why does a town of 226 people require its own court anyway?” asks Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “The conflict is present in the existence of the court itself. The court, a key government function meant to protect everyone’s rights and responsibilities, is instead being used to meet a budget.”

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