Black makes changes to court procedure in response to SPLC suit  

Published 5:08 am Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bogalusa City Judge Robert Black said he has made some changes to his court procedures, following a class action lawsuit by an Alabama-based civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The SPLC filed a suit in federal court that alleges Black improperly jails residents who have no money to pay fines, thereby running a “debtor’s prison.” The SPLC also accuses the judge of soliciting illegal extension fees from defendants who need more time to pay their fines.

In addition, the SPLC is also hoping the lawsuit will change state law that funds city courts through court fees following convictions — a premise that the SPLC believes pressures judges to convict with greater frequency in order to fully fund their offices.

On Monday, Black announced he would not accept extension fees for the time being. The SPLC argues that since state law doesn’t specifically authorize judges to collect such fees, they’re illegal.

“In those cases where a further extension is requested, the court has recently been requiring the defendant to pay a $50 extension fee to help defray the costs occasioned by the additional proceedings. These fees have not and cannot be used as compensation to the city court judge,” Black wrote, in a statement. “It is the court’s understanding that the collection of these or similar costs is utilized by other courts in Louisiana; nevertheless, the court at this time has suspended this practice pending further review.”

While Black does not get personal compensation from the fees, Court Clerk Tonia DeLeon said the fees do fund the office.

However, Black has agreed to temporarily suspend collecting any and all fees and fines that would otherwise fund his court.

Sam Brooke, the deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center said he was pleased with that arrangement.

“Nobody should be jailed or threatened with jail if they are too poor to pay a fine,” said Brooke, in a statement. “We’re pleased that Judge Black is taking steps to ensure people are treated fairly regardless of their economic status and that he has agreed to temporarily stop collecting court costs and fees that fund the city court. “Funding the justice system on the backs of the poor is fundamentally unfair and creates a systemic incentive to find people guilty. We are pleased that this has stopped, and hope this is the start to a solution that will ensure an impartial court of justice.”

DeLeon said people can still pay their fines and due dates are still in effect, but the city court will not take its usual cut of the money until the SPLC lawsuit is settled in federal court.

Besides temporarily ceasing fee collection, Black’s court has also postponed all city court hearings until after a federal court hearing in mid-July.

“The reasons we have agreed to do this are, one, to allow the issues raised in this complaint, which may affect other courts throughout this state, to be reviewed and considered by all interested parties and, two, to allow the attorneys to have further discussions to determine whether there may be ways to resolve these issues,” Black wrote.

Black added in his statement that he does not sentence people to jail without due consideration.

“The public should be assured that imposing jail time on misdemeanor violations is a matter that the court does not take lightly,” Black said. “Incarceration is typically a matter of last resort.”

However, DeLeon said she did not have any statistics that showed how many people are jailed, how many are issued fines and how many are given community service. In addition, Black said many defendants get jail time because they fail to deliver on a condition set by the court. If a defendant misses his court date or if he fails to show up for an arraignment, he could get jail time.

“The process begins with an arrest by police, after which the defendant is given an arraignment date,” Black said. “If the defendant pleads guilty or is found guilty after trial, the court then would impose a sentence that almost always directs the payment of a fine or community service, but in default of either could result in jail time.

“In cases where a fine is imposed, the defendant is usually given at least 30 days to pay the fine if he or she is unable to pay at the time of sentencing. If the fine is still not paid within this additional period, the court could impose the jail time but may consider a request for a further extension as an alternative to imposing jail time.”

According to DeLeon, it is common for defendants to miss court dates and fail to pay their fines. DeLeon pointed out that on Monday, over 60 people were due in court. The day began at 9:30 a.m. and stretched into the late afternoon, and 32 of those people were on the “to-pay” docket, meaning 32 people should have shown up before Black to either pay a fine or report on their community service or drug treatment program.

Twelve of those 32 did not show. Those people who didn’t show up were then issued a citation for failure to appear, which is a misdemeanor and results in a fine of $250 or 15 days in jail.

These charges can pile up.

On Monday, Latoria Foxworth, in a city jail uniform and handcuffs, stood before Black. Foxworth, a 27-year-old, was charged with not using a child restraint, but she was also facing two charges of failure to appear from 2013. Foxworth said she simply didn’t know about the court dates and that’s why she didn’t appear.

Another woman, Janice McNeese, was facing the judge on charges of resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and public drunkenness, in addition to a charge for failure to appear and pay fines from a May 9 charge of public intoxication.

McNeese told the judge she forgot about that deadline, because she had a date in family court.

“I had court that week for my son; he’s in foster care,” she told Black. “I have a lot going on.”

With all her charges, she was facing fines and court costs of nearly $900 or three months in jail.

Black asked McNeese if she had a job. She said that she did, making $8 an hour cleaning and maintaining properties. She said she took home $400 a week.

Judge Black didn’t specifically say whether or not her income had any bearing on his decision, but he sentenced her to 30 days suspended sentence and he ordered her to complete an alcohol treatment program for the alcohol-related charges. Meanwhile, Black deferred payment on the contempt of court finding until September.

DeLeon said it is rare when a defendant outright asks the judge to perform community service in lieu of a fine, and she said it’s not often when the judge offers that arrangement.

“Typically community service is given along with a fine, not in lieu of,” she said.

Black said he is taking the SPLC’s concerns seriously, and he is looking forward to resolving the lawsuit.

“The Court appreciates the concerns of the Southern Poverty Law Center and looks forward to discussions with the plaintiffs’ attorneys,” he said. “In the meantime, members of the public are invited to attend our misdemeanor court proceedings every Monday from 9:30 a.m. until late afternoon and witness for themselves that each case is judged on an individual basis.”