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Bill to crackdown on liability insurance dodgers would send money to public defenders

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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) -

The city’s money-strapped public defenders’ office could benefit from a bill designed to help the state crack down on drivers who do not have liability insurance.

"It's painful to see people sitting without representation, perhaps losing out on evidence they could use to prove their innocence,” said Colin Reingold, litigation director at the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s Office.

SB 54 calls for the creation of a pilot program for nine parishes that would employ an automatic license plate system in the vehicles of law enforcement officers to help catch auto insurance dodgers and stolen vehicles.

"We still have over 15 percent of our drivers out there today that just blatantly say I'm not going to carry liability insurance,” said State Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles and author of the legislation.

Under the proposed new law, a computerized state database with information about drivers who have lapsed auto insurance would be tapped into immediately as the cameras in officers’ vehicles read license plates.

Johns said what he proposes is not akin to red light cameras. He said no one’s face would be scanned, only license plates.

After discussion by member of the House Criminal Justice Committee, the bill was amended to give public defenders’ offices 10 percent of the funds collected from the $200 fine for those skirting the existing law requiring liability insurance.

Reingold applauds the amendment to give public defenders more money, but said that is not the solution to the years-old money problems they have.

"We certainly welcome any additional funds and we appreciate the legislature's recognition that there is a crisis in public defense funding in Louisiana, however, we will continue to advocate for changing the entire funding mechanism for public defense in this state, Reingold stated.

He said the local public defenders’ office is already too heavily dependent on money from traffic tickets.

"And those fluctuate dramatically from year-to-year and it's very hard to budget and maintain a competent staff when you don't how much money you're getting,” stated Reingold.

He said that has contributed to the office’s ongoing money crunch.

The bill did pass out of the House committee and will now be considered by the full House. It had already won approval in the Senate.

Still there is strong opposition, some of which was voiced during the meeting.

"This is a gross violation of our privacy,” said Wendy Adams of the Libertarian Party.

"This wouldn't require a warrant of any sort, and anybody's whereabouts in the state of Louisiana who has not committed any crime would be available and it would be in this database,” said Kyla Romanach, of the La. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Under Johns’ bill, the information would only be retained for 60 days, except when the data is used as evidence of a violation of the insurance law, for felonies under investigation or for AMBER Alerts and Blue Alerts. 

The company that would provide the cameras would share in a portion of the fines, as well as DA’s office and sheriff’s departments. 

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