Federal class action lawsuit alleges Gretna Mayor’s Court actually ‘debtor’s prison’

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NEW ORLEANS – A new lawsuit claims the Gretna “Mayor’s Court” functions as a modern day debtor’s prison.

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed the federal class action suit on behalf of Tamara G. Nelson and Timothea N. Richardson.

Nelson and Richardson represent all the pending cases before the Mayor’s Court and the defendants who cannot afford the diversion program, according to the Justice Center.

The Mayor’s Court deals with violations of the Gretna Municipal Code, and violators are brought before magistrates and prosecutors who are appointed by the Gretna City Council and serve at the pleasure of Mayor Belinda C. Constant.

“This is a staggering miscarriage of justice,” Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center’s New Orleans office, said. “Individuals come before the court only with petty citations, distributed for their fee-generating potential. These individuals are then prosecuted by an employee of the Mayor in a court overseen by an employee of the Mayor and then made to pay a fee, collected by the Police Department at the direction of the Mayor, in order help fund the same system and its actors.”

A defendant in the Mayor’s Court can pay a fee, typically $250 per offense, to enter a diversion program, and after a “suitable period of time,” the charges are dropped, according to the lawsuit.

However, if the defendant fails to make a payment or to pay the amount in full, they forfeit all money paid up to that point, and their case goes directly to trial.

“This is equivalent to holding people hostage,” Foley said. “The Mayor’s Court is blatantly funding itself and the City of Gretna on over-enforcement of traffic tickets and nonviolent misdemeanors. This isn’t justice. It’s profit.”

Misdemeanor offenses like traffic violations, disturbing the peace, and public drunkenness make up most of the offenses sent before the Mayor’s Court, according to the Justice Center.

The rate of arrests for those offenses rose by 480 percent between 2000 and 2014.

In 2015, nearly 3,500 cases went before the Mayor’s Court, and fines and fees from the Mayor’s Court generated over 13 percent of the Gretna General Fund.

“There is no neutral party here,” Foley said. “Instead every key actor within the Mayor’s Court is beholden to the shared goal of generating revenue for the City’s—and their own—financial advantage.”