Police Abuse

Meet the Community in Louisiana Where Police Throw People in Jail First and Then Investigate

Justice Dept. threatens intervention to stop unconstituional 'investigative holds.'


Flynt / Dreamstime.com

Imagine being treated the same way a person arrested for a felony is treated—brought into jail, strip searched, imprisoned—even though you aren't arrested. Worse yet, imagine being treated that way because you might have been a witness to a crime and police wanted to interview you.

That's exactly what had been happening down in Louisiana in Evangeline Parrish (population 33,500) and its town of Ville Platte (population 7,300). According a long-term Department of Justice investigation that was just released in December, police and sheriff's offices there had a long-established practice of jailing people for days without charges or warrants as "investigative holds." The practice is extremely unconstitutional but apparently had been policy.

Police held people for days without charging them with crimes, but often suspected them of having committed crimes. According to the DOJ report the detention was partly because the police thought these people were guilty of something but lacked actual evidence, so police used the opportunity to keep them behind bars while they looked for something to hit them with. They were forced to sleep on the floor in jail and were not allowed to contact the outside world and let people know what had happened to them. They were essentially "disappeared" by law enforcement officials:

Investigative holds initiated by [Ville Platte Police Department] VPPD often last for 72 hours—and sometimes significantly longer—forcing detainees to spend multiple nights sleeping on a concrete floor or metal bench. Indeed, VPPD's booking logs indicate that, from 2012-2014, several dozen investigative holds extended for at least a full week. During this time, VPPD exerts control over the detainees' liberty: The detained person is not permitted to make phone calls to let family or employers know where they are, and have access to bathrooms and showers only when taken into the jail's general population area.

Similarly, [Evangeline Parrish Sheriff's Office] EPSO's investigative holds often last for three full days. During that time, detainees are forced to sleep on the Parish Jail's concrete floor. One EPSO deputy reported that he saw someone held without a warrant or a probable cause determination for more than six days. As with VPPD, EPSO also controls the detainee's liberty. EPSO does not permit detainees who are "on hold" to make phone calls to let family or employers know their whereabouts. Indeed, we were told that certain detectives have threatened EPSO jail officers (referred to as "jailers" in the Parish Jail) with retaliation if the officers allowed detainees to make phone calls. One EPSO jail officer described an incident in which an EPSO detective reprimanded him after the jail officer provided toothpaste and other personal supplies to a person locked in the holding cell.

These investigative holds are not even ostensibly supported by probable cause. Both EPSO and VPPD detectives acknowledged that they use investigative holds where they lack sufficient evidence to make an arrest, but instead have a "hunch" or "feeling" that a person may be involved in criminal activity. One VPPD officer noted that they use investigative holds specifically where the officer needs more time to develop evidence to support a lawful arrest. Similarly, an EPSO detective described using investigative holds when he had "a pretty good feeling" or a "gut instinct" that a certain individual was connected to a crime.

The DOJ report goes on that it was not just suspects who were treated this way. They even locked up people they thought might be witnesses to a crime, meaning just about anybody could have been subjected to this treatment:

For example, one woman told us that VPPD officers detained her and her family in 2014 after a grocery shopping trip during which they may have witnessed an armed robbery and shooting. The woman was on her way home with her groceries when a VPPD officer stopped her. She told the officer that she did not see the robbery and that she had no information about the crime. After she got home and dropped off her groceries, another VPPD officer came to her house and commanded her to come to the police station to answer questions. The woman recounted—and Chief Lartigue confirmed—that the officer took the woman, her boyfriend, and a 16-year old who was staying at their house into custody at the jail. Officers strip-searched the woman, who was menstruating at the time, and forced her to remove her tampon. VPPD officers then placed her in custody overnight—first in a holding cell and then in the Jail's general population—without access to sanitary products. According to the woman, roughly nine hours later, VPPD detectives removed her from detention to question her about the shooting. The district attorney participated in this interrogation. VPPD officers also held the woman's boyfriend overnight in a holding cell, and held the juvenile in a separate holding cell for at least seven hours before releasing him to a family member. None of these individuals were suspected of having any connection to the robbery or shooting, yet detectives incarcerated them for significant periods of time before showing them a line up and asking questions about what they may have witnessed. The day after being released, the woman called Chief Lartigue to complain about her treatment. Chief Lartigue responded that the detention was pursuant to department policy.

Another woman was detained with two small children and kept in holding cells (the kids were eventually released to family members) for questioning about an armed robbery. She spent days in custody without being charged but also not being permitted to leave. Eventually after 72 hours they charged her with armed robbery to keep her in custody. Local media reported the arrest, but the charges were subsequently dropped and she told the DOJ that she still has no idea why the police ever charged her in connection with the case.

The DOJ details the constitutional problems and Fourth and Fifth Amendment violations—which should be obvious even to laypeople—with the detentions. There was no judicial review. No magistrate was evaluating and ruling on the probable cause to hold these people, because clearly there often was none. If police brought these people before a judge they'd be ordered to let them go. The police were also using the detentions to interrogate and get incriminating statements from those they've snagged in order to try to get convictions, but given that the detentions were unlawful, any confessions would run up against Fifth Amendment protections against compelled self-incrimination.

Unfortunately, the report notes, the record-keeping with these law enforcement agencies was poor enough that they were unable to evaluate the extent of the consequences of this. That is to say: They have no idea how many people were either convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes based on information or confessions the police gathered illegally or whether they've sent innocent people to prison because of it. The DOJ does have "grave concerns" that these detentions have led to wrongful convictions.

Apparently the law enforcement agencies involved are cooperative with the DOJ's investigation and the report concludes with calls for a court-enforced reform program to, among other things, teach police that you can't just put people in jail cells while you investigate them. The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ is prepared to sue if they can't reach an agreement with the law enforcement agencies involved.

Read the report here. And before thinking to yourself "Oh, those racist Southern towns and their Boss Hogg sheriffs," remember that what this report describes is eerily similar to the practices Chicago Police have just as recently been accused of at Homan Square.