Police

How Louisiana Perfected the Speed Trap

Want to fight your ticket? Welcome to mayor’s court, where your accuser is also your judge.

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Speeding was not an option for Evelyne Bornier when she hosted relatives from France and took them on a road trip through the Deep South in October 2018. The group of seven adults traveled in a Chevrolet Venture with a broken suspension system that turned potholes into craters.

"It was an old, beaten up van," says Bornier, a language professor who immigrated from France in 1994. "We just needed transportation, and it was cheaper to buy one and use it for the trip rather than rent something for three weeks."

Even with a newer vehicle, Bornier would have followed the traffic rules. "My dad is a retired police officer, and I abide by the law," she says. "I guess it's in my blood."

Her guests understood the need to go slow, but teased Bornier anyway about her cautious driving during the journey from her home in Auburn, Alabama, to Houston and back. Bornier rarely topped 50 mph the whole way, and hitting 60 mph was impossible. So she was surprised when she passed a police car parked on the side of Interstate 10 in Henderson, Louisiana, and the emergency lights started flashing.

"I'm thinking maybe I have a broken taillight or something like that," Bornier says.

Instead, the officer pulled her over and accused her of driving past 70 mph in a 60 mph zone. Stunned by the allegation, Bornier offered her keys to the officer and challenged him to bring the vehicle to 70 mph. He declined and told her that if she had a problem with the ticket, she could talk to the judge.

Evelyne Bornier stands with her Chevrolet Venture, which she bought in 2018 for a road trip with relatives.

Bornier considered doing just that, but then weighed the costs. For starters, she would have to drive from Auburn to the middle of Louisiana for the hearing. Most likely, she would have to come more than once—first to plead not guilty and then for a trial on a later date.

Bornier also faced higher penalties if she disputed her ticket. Louisiana allows towns and villages to tack on a $50 "witness fee" when officers testify in court, and costs accumulate if a defendant appeals to the next level.

The clerk who talked to Bornier on the phone also told her that her insurance rates would go up if she fought the ticket and lost. But if she paid immediately, the infraction would not show up on her record.

Taxation by Citation

Louisiana's traffic enforcement system punishes individuals in multiple ways when they exercise their constitutional rights. But none of the pressure tactics are unusual. Small towns all over the United States run speed traps and then use rigged local courts to convert citations into revenue—like a one-two punch that robs people of due process.

The resulting fines and fees supplement tax collections, and many municipalities grow addicted to the funds. Extra revenue for perks quickly becomes essential for daily operations.

A 2020 report from the Institute for Justice calls the practice "taxation by citation," which occurs when local governments issue tickets to raise revenue rather than to protect the public. The nationwide survey of state laws found perverse financial incentives and lack of legislative oversight almost everywhere. But Bornier discovered one key difference in Louisiana.

If she requested a hearing, her judge would be the mayor—the same person who manages the municipal budget. Such an arrangement takes collusion to the next level, cutting out the need for secret meetings and backroom deals. A system that puts the same individual in charge of the executive and judicial branches of government turns every party-of-one into a meeting of political insiders.

To make matters worse, some Louisiana mayors also serve as prosecutors while simultaneously sitting on the bench. First they present evidence to themselves, then they rule in favor of themselves, and then they send payments to themselves. Outsiders can do little more than watch as me-myself-and-I share power—and cash.

Louisiana lawmakers have no problem with the built-in conflicts. The state takes a hands-off approach, allowing about 250 mayor's courts in small towns and villages to operate outside the normal rules of procedure. As the Louisiana Municipal Association acknowledges in its Mayor's Court Handbook, "state law provides little guidance for the day-to-day functioning of these courts."

A police officer waits for speeders on northbound U.S. Highway 165 on June 16, 2021, in Oberlin, Louisiana.

Bornier abandoned all hope of fair treatment when she discovered the scheme, so she cut her losses and paid $192 for a violation that she did not commit. "A system that lets the judge be the mayor or the mayor be the judge is outrageous," she says. "It's unethical and should be illegal."

Police, Inc.

No other U.S. jurisdiction except Ohio allows mayors to preside in their own courtrooms. The results are sometimes staggering.

Fenton, a southwest Louisiana village with about 380 residents, has used its mayor's court to pursue taxation by citation as a financial strategy for more than 15 years. Accountants recommended aggressive traffic enforcement as a way to boost revenue in 2005, saying nothing about public safety. The context was strictly business.

Fines and fees more than tripled during the next two years, climbing from $38,000 to $120,000. The revenue more than tripled again to $388,000 by 2011, following the widening of U.S. Route 165 from two lanes to five lanes through the center of the village in 2009.

Increased traffic counts since then have turned law enforcement into the village's number one industry. Fenton planners budgeted $750,000 for fines and fees in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020, putting pressure on a police department with only three patrol officers to deliver.

Despite a COVID-19 stay-at-home order that reduced traffic during the final months of the reporting period, the village easily surpassed the projection and raked in more than $1 million in fines and fees for the fifth year in a row.

The haul represents more than $3,000 per resident, although local families pay almost nothing. The police chief, who is also the mayor's uncle, focuses on out-of-towners.

Overall, at least 24 Louisiana municipalities got more than half their money from fines and fees during the most recent year for which results are available. For comparison, the national average is about 2 percent of municipal revenue from fines and fees—and watchdog groups flag anything above 10 percent as excessive.

Fisher, McNary, and Merryville, Louisiana, blew past that limit like a drag racer in a school zone. All three municipalities got more than 60 percent of their revenue from fines and fees in 2020.

Other Louisiana towns and villages relied on their mayor's courts even more. Forest Hill, Port Vincent, and Creola covered more than 70 percent of their budgets from fines and fees in 2020, while Baskin, Dodson, Reeves, Robeline and Tullos topped 80 percent. So did Henderson, the town that ticketed Bornier.

A police officer waits for speeders on southbound U.S. Highway 165 on June 16, 2021, in Forest Hill, Louisiana.

Fenton nearly hit 90 percent, a monster figure but not the highest in Louisiana. Georgetown, another village on Route 165, led all municipalities at 93 percent.

No other state has so many towns and villages that lean so heavily on court revenue. Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas, and New York stood out for aggressive code enforcement in a 2019 report from Governing, but Louisiana outpaced them all.

Bornier sees a direct connection to the mayor's court system, combined with sheer desperation for cash in communities with no tax base. "The mayor has an interest in bringing revenue to the city, obviously, so he's not going to dismiss tickets for someone like me," she says. "Especially for someone who has a license plate from out of state."

Sportsman's Paradise

Mayor's court revenue may come from a range of petty offenses, but Louisiana's smallest municipalities collect virtually all of their fines and fees from traffic enforcement. Fenton shows how the enterprise can work.

Just past the point where the speed limit drops from 65 mph to 50 mph on southbound Route 165, Fenton police built a paved lookout area for themselves in a small cluster of trees. The cover turns the department's black SUVs almost invisible at night, while providing shade on hot summer days.

Patrol officers back into the nook and point their radar guns up the highway toward the Coushatta Casino Resort, a tourist attraction that lures hundreds of visitors daily. Only the deceased residents buried across the highway at a roadside cemetery spend more time in the lookout area. A Fenton police vehicle even appears in the hiding spot on Google Street View.

Public records from January and February 2021 suggest a fast-paced job. Three Fenton officers issued 905 citations during the two-month span, representing one ticket every 36 minutes around the clock. One sergeant cranked out 17 citations during a single shift on February 12 amid a winter storm that shut down parts of Texas and Louisiana.

Other days, the job mostly involves sitting and waiting. In many ways the rhythm resembles fishing, a popular pastime in a state nicknamed the "Sportsman's Paradise." Long periods of quiet are punctuated by occasional bursts of activity.

Also like fishing, everyone has a favorite spot. An officer in Baskin hides behind a flatbed trailer outside Gorilla Dock & Marine on U.S. Route 425. Officers in Henderson camp out on Interstate 10 at the bottom of the Louisiana Airborne Memorial Bridge.

A police officer patrols U.S. Route 425 on June 17, 2021, in Baskin, Louisiana.

An officer in Georgetown lurks at the bottom of a highway overpass, clocking southbound cars as they come over the crest. An officer in Forest Hill parks in the grass off a private driveway, using a bend in the tree line for cover.

Many residents welcome the heavy police presence. George Loche, who gets around Fenton on a bicycle, says the speed traps force travelers to slow down. "It keeps the town quiet like it is," he says. "We like it this way."

Other residents talk about financial benefits, but not everyone agrees. One man, who stops to chat while buying a Dr Pepper from a vending machine in Henderson, says the revenue from traffic enforcement has done nothing to improve his town. "They pull in thousands and thousands of dollars, but the town still looks like crap," he says.

For emphasis, he points down the main road. Dilapidated buildings line the street, and weeds push through the cracks in the parking lot outside Robin's Restaurant, an abandoned eatery that once served Cajun cuisine. The only sign of economic growth is a single construction site—the future home of a new town hall.

Robin's Restaurant, an abandoned eatery, once served Cajun cuisine in Henderson, Louisiana.

A nearby shop owner says most residents will never go inside the building for mayor's court because Henderson does not give tickets to locals. If it did, voters would throw the mayor and police chief out of office.

"Politics," the man says with a smile. "The left hand washes the right hand."

The Hunt for Due Process

Out-of-towners and locals are not the only ones with opinions about mayor's courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in three times on cases out of Ohio in 1927, 1928, and 1972.

In the most recent decision, Ward v. Village of Monroeville, a 7–2 majority ruled that executive responsibilities for municipal finances made an Ohio mayor too partisan to serve as judge, depriving people of their 14th Amendment right to due process.

Other rebukes have followed. In 2000 a citizens commission studied mayor's courts at the request of the Ohio Supreme Court and recommended ending the system. And in 2019 the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio published a report showing how mayor's courts violate people's rights while disproportionately targeting black people.

So far, Ohio and Louisiana lawmakers have ignored the evidence. Karen White, executive counsel at the Louisiana Municipal Association in Baton Rouge, says none of the Ohio research or case history applies to Louisiana because mayor's courts work differently in the Pelican State.

"What differentiates Louisiana from Ohio in most cases is that our laws are intentionally designed to create strong checks and balances," she says.

Mayors do not set municipal salaries, allocate funds, or fill law enforcement positions, for example. Police chiefs are either elected by voters or appointed by the board of aldermen. "The mayor has zero interest in that," White says.

Despite the assurances of impartiality, two former police officers described systemic bias when they resigned and filed separate whistleblower lawsuits against Gretna, Louisiana. They claimed that the small city outside New Orleans was using an illegal quota system and punishing officers who fell behind on issuing citations.

Rather than litigating the allegations, the police chief claimed qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields government employees from accountability when they violate civil rights. Essentially, the chief asked the court to assume that the allegations were true, but to dismiss the complaints anyway.

The MacArthur Justice Center picked up the matter and filed its own lawsuit against Gretna in 2017, targeting the mayor's court for its role in the money-making scheme. Unlike Fenton and many other Louisiana municipalities, where mayors preside personally on the bench, Gretna appoints magistrates who serve at the mayor's pleasure.

Eric Foley, the lead attorney who filed the 2017 case, says the effect is the same. "A lot of people don't realize what they're walking into," he says. "The trials are a travesty."

Defendants with resources avoid the mess. They just pay online. "If you show up, it's because you can't afford to pay," Foley says. "So you come and hope for a diversion program or payment plan."

Foley says low-income families and people of color often get trapped in debt. A single citation or misdemeanor arrest can turn into a monthslong ordeal, requiring multiple court appearances with stiff penalties for a single missed appointment.

"Just go and sit in one of the sessions," Foley says. "The defendants appearing in the mayor's court are disproportionately poor people of color."

Statistics support the argument, but the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana only considered mayor's court bias in narrow terms. A federal judge ruled in 2020 that Gretna did not violate the Constitution because no one received direct compensation tied to court performance. In other words, the mayor and the officials who served at her pleasure got paid the same whether or not they collected fines and fees—even if their salaries and other perks depended on the money.

The ruling was good news for 250 mayors across Louisiana, who can continue operating business as usual. For everyone else, Evelyne Bornier provides a cautionary tale.

"I was stopped," she says. "I was given a ticket for something I did not do, and I had absolutely zero opportunity to discuss the ticket itself or to fight it."

NEXT: Housing-Starved San Francisco Fines Developer $1.2 Million For Building Too Many Units

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  1. Last time I challenged a speeding ticket the judge addressed the room by saying something along the lines of “By law the radar is right, even if it’s wrong. So even if you prove it was wrong you’re guilty. Also, I don’t accept ‘just driving’ or anything else as a defense. You’re all guilty. Now let’s start wasting my time.”

    And I’m in a state where municipalities don’t get any revenue from tickets. It all goes straight to the state’s general fund. I can only imagine how courts that keep the money operate.

    1. In Louisiana it’s actually worse than the article suggest as having judges rule over the presidings wouldn’t change the outcome at all. My partner did some pro bono work in North Louisiana and said the judges don’t even pretend to follow the law and simply do whatever they wish to do.

  2. The federal govt ought to ban traffic stops, not saying enforcement, on federal highways because it’s dangerous, invasive, rife for corruption, and because they’re safer more reliable and humane ways to deal with traffic violations.

    1. Lard of Strudel wants speed cameras recording your every move apparently.

      1. The fascists always want more federal control of everything.

    2. Sure, we could have chips embedded in our spines which would, among many other useful things (location, for instance), measure the speed we’re travelling at all times. Both safe and effective.

      1. And they could linked to a surgically implanted bomb so if you drove too fast it could be detonated.

        Or if you posted something the government doesn’t like to Facebook.

        1. What do you think is in those vaccinations they want us to get?

  3. Is a speeding ticket a civil offense or a criminal offense in Louisiana? As an out-of-stater, I’d just throw the ticket away and cross Louisiana off my list of states to ever visit again.

    1. A friend of mine received an underage drinking ticket from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources twig pigs. He’s never been back to Wisconsin. That was almost 20 years ago.

      1. Has Wisconsin badgered him about it?

        1. Ba dum bum

        2. That’s pretty cheesy.

    2. Even when a ticket is a mere civil offense, failing to show up in court (or pay your extortion by mail) can be considered contempt and can be escalated into a criminal offense.

      Throwing the ticket away worked before the police departments started sharing information so they’d have even more excuses to pull you over.

  4. Also, I’m in a state where districts don’t get any income from tickets. Everything goes directly to the state’s overall asset. I can just envision how courts that keep the cash work.

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  5. Several years ago I took my Mother over to visit my Sister. A few days after I got back I got a letter in the mail. It was a citation for doing 55 in a 35 zone and a picture of my car and several others. There was a phone number, so I called it. The woman who answered said that I could just pay $85 and that would be the end of it. I told her no and asked for a Court date. She said “We don’t do that here.” It took about an hour to get a number to call for a Court date. The day arrives and I go in front of the Magistrate. He asks if I have anything to say and I tell him “I’ll plead no contest if you can tell me which of the cars the radar is reading?” He says “You know how radar works?” “I used it in the Navy.” “Case dismissed.” There were a total of seven cars in that picture. Six had visible license plates. How many of them do you think got cited? The State outlawed the automatic speed traps a few months later.

  6. don’t pay it, and never goto Louisiana again.

  7. I received a ticket for crossing some bridge in Washington State. Problem was, I had sold the car several weeks earlier. They sent me a nice bill for something like $200 (I don’t remember exactly). It was a nice letter, and informed that if I didn’t pay the fine, and was ever to visit the State again, there would be a warrant waiting for me.

    Just one more reason never to visit Washington….

    1. — crossing some bridge and not paying the toll —

    2. Regarding the warrant if you ever travel to Washington, guess you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it.

    3. Did you get proof of sale? If you didn’t you put yourself in danger of getting blamed for a lot more if the car is in a serious accident. You are considered the owner until the title is changed, which the buyer may never do to avoid the fees (tax).

      1. Yep. I have sold vehicles before. But not everyone might realize that, so thanks for posting.

      2. No you don’t. When it was sold is when it was sold. They can go through the effort to prove it wasn’t sold.

        Jesus, you sound like the paranoids who want 15 pieces of paper signed and notarized to sell a gun privately – ‘but what if its used in a crime!!11111!!’

        1. If JG got the ticket then they must have used his registration to trace the vehicle it back to him (never sell a car with the plates still on it) so if he was the last person to register it that’s prima facie evidence he still owns it.

          Last car I sold the title had a perforated slip for me to fill out, detach, and mail back to the state as proof I sold it

          1. Yes, I did sell the car with the plates still on it. In CA, this is how it is done. (and yes there is a release form to send in to the DMV) I am sure if I would’ve gone to court I could have had it thrown out, but from where I lived at the time, that was 1200–mile round trip, with a night in a hotel thrown in on top of it. All this because of a camera which took a picture of a car I no longer owned.

            The problem is that the folks I sold it to apparently hadn’t gotten around to registering the car in Washington.

    4. Oh we got one of those on a motorcycle plate we had already turned into the DMV and someone had it on a car…

      My husband spent months contesting that with sun pass.

      1. My grandmother somehow got toll violations for a car she’d never owned. registered with a plate number she never had, from a state she’s never lived in.

        She was able to get the fines cleared after submitting an affidavit of non-liability on the grounds of never having owned that car. Still no clue how it ever got connected to her. I almost think they when they get a car they can’t track down they just send the fine to some random person and how they pay

        1. ” I almost think they when they get a car they can’t track down they just send the fine to some random person and how they pay”

          Please don’t give them any more ideas!

  8. “…a $50 witness fee…”? No. It’s a due process fee.

    1. “DUE PROCESS” in a county I used to live in included a forty-dollar fee which one had to pay even if you beat the ticket. Really.

  9. The courts are so cost prohibitive, we might as well remove the right to Due Process.

    They are kinda doing that with all our rights.

    However, it’s easy as pie to get that fake right to an abortion!

  10. My first speeding ticket was in LA in the early 1990’s.

    I had actually been traveling way above the speed limit until about 10 minutes before I hit the cop – I had had to deliberately slow down because the car was overheating.

    Never paid it. They can come get me.

  11. Bornier’s mistake was taking a rural driving vacation. She should have gone to San Francisco and done some shoplifting. Then the police would have left her alone.

  12. IJ should fund hundreds of slander lawsuits against the cops who openly accuse people of crimes they didn’t do. Libel, too, for the written tickets that defame innocent victims.

    The lawsuits could all be thrown out, but the cops will have to deal with the hassle of being in civil litigation, on their own dime.

    Slander and libel aren’t official duties.

  13. kinda makes one yearn to defund the police!

    1. So they have to make up even more funding through fines and asset forfeiture? No thank you

  14. Do you hear banjo music?

  15. Fenton, a southwest Louisiana village with about 380 residents, has used its mayor’s court to pursue taxation by citation as a financial strategy for more than 15 years.

  16. Don’t forget to flash your lights at oncoming traffic if you pass a cop.

    1. Just report the speed trap on Google Maps and other apps.

  17. A few lawsuits that cost these towns and villages more than $1 million to defend would put an end to this practice.

    Cmon IJ, file a suit in federal court against these practices. You don’t even have to win.

  18. What if we call it a tourism penaltax? Or a toll?

    Would that be ok?

  19. I think all citations and forfeitures should go to the state general fund versus the police directly. There should be no profit motive in law enforcement.

  20. It is extremely naïve to imagine judges and commissioners are somehow outside the State that is trying to rob you

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