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."