District attorneys' offices across Louisiana are offering pre-trial diversion programs for traffic tickets, according to an investigation by The Lens. Under the programs, the fines associated with the tickets go directly to the DA's office, and drivers can avoid having their tickets treated as moving violations and thus avoid higher insurance premiums.
The hustle reveals what a central role revenue-raising plays in policing.
"This is a complete failure by the Louisiana legislature and court system to instill an accountability or control on prosecutors or sheriffs," New Orleans criminal defense attorney C.J. Mordock, of the Mordock Law Group, tells Reason. "Had an individual assistant district attorney offered this deal, he could be prosecuted. But if a faceless unaccountable bureaucracy does it, life goes on."
Pre-trial diversion programs were created as a way to keep first-time offenders out of the courts, "diverting" them from a trial and offering them a second chance. Some Louisiana parishes don't even bother to require traffic violators to attend online driving schools—so long as they are willing to write a check to the DA's office.
The fact that some moving violations can be downgraded so easily to non-moving violations suggests that they were not moving violations in the first place—that they were always primarily revenue-raising endeavors. The district attorney's website in Caddo Parish illustrates this when it notes that no one ticketed "for any speed which is deemed excessive" would be eligible for the program. But if a speed is not excessive, what reason is there to issue a ticket other than to make money off the motorist?
What makes the situation in Louisiana worse is that it's the only state where public defenders are largely funded through traffic tickets.
Years ago, The Lens noted, public defenders pushed to be allocated more of the money collected through court fees. They were receiving $35 per trial and were asking for $100; eventually they got $45.
That fight led to this delicious quote from E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association: "That was a theft of our portion of the fines and forfeitures. We let them steal less money than they were gonna steal from us."
Forfeiture, of course, could also be considered "theft." It certainly fits the definition a lot better than one component of the criminal justice system trying to get a larger slice of the revenue, particularly when it's the only segment of the system focused on defending the rights of the accused. Shenanigans like pre-trial diversion for traffic tickets support the idea that fines could be seen as a kind of theft too—at least when they're not levied as punishment, or to improve safety, but to fill government coffers.
Louisiana public defenders complained to The Lens that pre-trial diversion for traffic tickets means less funding for their offices, since the proceeds go directly to the DA instead of being shared. But the public defenders should not be funded through tickets to begin with. Neither should DAs or any other element of the criminal justice system. Such perverse incentives should have no place in a system supposedly dedicated to justice.