ST. CHARLES PARISH, LA (WVUE) - The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a complaint against district attorneys across Louisiana who they say are vioalting the state's ethics laws by hiring off-duty officers to write "diversion" traffic tickets.
Those tickets generate millions of dollars a year for district attorneys, according to the complaint filed by the SPLC.
The complaint alleges that the off-duty officers operate a dragnet on local highways and roads, resulting in thousands of additional traffic tickets each year that threaten motorists with prosecution unless they pay hundreds of dollars to the district attorney's offices to dismiss the tickets.
According to the news release issued by SPLC, the state's ethics code prohibits district attorneys from leveraging the threat of prosecution in order to make money.
The SPLC asked the ethics board to investigate the traffic ticket diversion programs to reaffirm that district attorneys may not profit from the threat of prosecution, and to order the district attorneys to return the millions of dollars in profits they have extracted through their for-profit diversion scheme.
"The state deserves more from its elected district attorneys than this unethical scheme to generate profits through the threat of prosecution," said Micah West, staff attorney for the SPLC. "Sometimes, prosecutors use their authority responsibly to divert low-level defendants out of the criminal justice system and into community-based treatment. But too often, district attorneys in Louisiana have been motivated by a desire to generate revenue rather than to seek justice. Traffic ticket diversion is nothing more than a money-making ploy that outrageously puts justice up for sale."
The complaint names District Attorney Richard J. Ward, whose district includes West Baton Rouge, Iberville and Pointe Coupee parishes; District Attorney Joel Chaisson II (St. Charles Parish); District Attorney Gary Evans (DeSoto Parish) and District Attorney John DeRosier (Calcasieu Parish).
According to the SPLC, the district attorneys are violating a section of the Louisiana state ethics code that prohibits public servants from abusing their positions to make money, according to the complaint.
The complaint alleges that Ward hires off-duty police officers to issue traffic tickets that are different from the ones issued by on-duty officers.
When offending motorists pay a fee of $175 to the district attorney's office, the office agrees not to prosecute them or report their traffic violations to the Office of Motor Vehicles, according to the complaint.
The diversion traffic ticket informs motorists that they will have to pay the $175 diversion fee within 15 days of their court date in a money order to the district attorney's office, or they will have their licenses suspended.
However, district attorneys have no authority under state law to suspend driver's licenses for non-payment of diversion fees, according to the complaint.
Payment plans are not offered, and those who cannot pay in full face prosecution solely because they do not have the money to pay to have their traffic tickets dismissed, according to the complaint.
The SPLC claims that the amount of revenue generated through traffic ticket diversion fees are substantial.
According to the report, last year the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney's Office generated $4.4 million from its ticket diversion program.
The district that includes West Baton Rouge, Iberville and point Coupee parishes generated over $2.1 million, and the St. Charles Parish District Attorney's Office generated over $1 million, according to the complaint.
The complaint said that the cost of administering the program is minimal. An example in the complaint claims that last year the traffic ticket diversion only cost St. Charles Parish about $30,000 in salaries in office expenses and advisory fees.
The Louisiana legislative auditor estimates that statewide traffic ticket diversion and other "charges for services" make up about 30 percent of the district attorneys' budgets, according to the report.
The complaint states that these fees represent the single largest source of revenue for many district attorney's offices.
"These district attorneys are violating the ethics code by using their charging authority as a sword to extract operating revenue," West said in an issued statement.