The Lens: Landrieu asks City Council to move appeals of camera-generated tickets to Traffic Court

New Orleans - Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office this morning will place an ordinance before the City Council that, if approved, would move contested traffic-camera tickets from Civil Court to Traffic Court, a move that could raise millions of dollars for Traffic Court.

Landrieu's spokesman, Ryan Berni, confirmed the move.

"The appeals process in Civil District Court is more cumbersome and expensive," Berni said.

Whether contested or not, fines from drivers ticketed robotically by cameras came to $9 million last year, said Traffic Court Clerk Noel Cassanova.

Cassanova drew on his own experience to argue that Civil Court was unsympathetic to drivers contesting traffic-camera tickets. He said that when he tried to explain why he had run a red light, the judge turned a deaf ear and Civil Court employees simply asked Cassanova if he wanted to watch the video again.

The move coincides with an effort by Traffic Court judges to push a bill through the state legislature that would permit a hike in their court costs, from $10 to $30, despite ample current revenues. House Bill 52 is awaiting discussion by the Senate Finance Committee after passing the House 86-1 last week.

The Traffic Court is a city agency with 84 employees, four of them judges. Of the court's $4 million operating budget, the city paid $940,000 in 2010 for salaries. The budget for the court's judicial-expense fund receives no public hearing. Instead, it is approved in a meeting of the four Traffic Court judges.

Currently, court costs are not levied on traffic-camera tickets. But under the planned switch to Traffic Court, the disputed tickets would incur court costs if such challenges were unsuccessful.

Berni said he was aware of the statewide move to increase Traffic Court costs to $30, but that the current cost of an unsuccessful appeal would be $10, if the City Council approves the shift of such cases from Civil Court to Traffic Court.

Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, has lobbied the Landrieu administration on the court's behalf to bring about the change, Berni said.

Arnold did not return calls seeking comment. Dale Atkins, clerk of Civil District Court, declined to comment.

It is not clear how much money the move could raise for Traffic Court, but Cassanova said that if Traffic Court raised an extra $2 million, the switch would be worthwhile.

"Would it be a windfall? Well, we do pretty good anyway. I generate a lot of money here — that's what I do," Cassanova said.

Last year, Traffic Court ended with a significant surplus, thanks to record revenues of $14 million. Of that, $4 million was used to cover current operating costs, $5.5 million was funneled into the city's general fund, and $4.5 million was disbursed among various criminal justice agencies, the District Attorney's Office among them, said Traffic Court Judge Robert Jones, who represented the court at the City Council's Nov. 9 budget hearing.

(For more articles like this one, visit The Lens - Follow @TheLensNola - Facebook: The Lens)