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New Orleans Traffic Court judges warn annual budget could be unconstitutional

By Richard Rainey | The Times-Picayune

October 28, 2013

Calling it unconstitutional for New Orleans Traffic Court to rely on court fees and fines from traffic law violators to pay for the bulk of its operating costs, Judge Mark Shea warned the court could be vulnerable to future legal challenges.

The present system could give judges an incentive to impose fines in traffic cases to help finance the court, he said.

“It’s illogical in terms of a defendant’s constitutional rights for New Orleans Traffic Court to be required to fund itself on the backs of the defendants,” Shea told the City Council.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry suggested that having the court send all fines and fees collected to the city, and then have the city reimburse the court could clear up such constitutional issues. Shea and Chief Judge Bobby Jones agreed, as long as the amount the city allocated to the court wasn’t linked in any way to the amount of fines levied.

Shea and Jones, accompanied by Judicial Administrator Debra Hall and other staff members, appeared before the council Monday to answer questions as city lawmakers mull aspects Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s 2014 budget proposal for the second consecutive week.

Under its one financial obligation to the court, the city is expected to pay $437,587 in 2014 to cover its share of judges’ salaries. That amounts to about 10 percent of the court’s $4.4 million yearly expenses.
An 18-percent decrease in traffic citations since 2011 has led the court’s annual revenue collection to steadily shrink. Hall said she expects an 11-percent drop between 2012 and 2013 by the end of the year. The court is expected to collect $11.3 million through December – down from the $12.7 million collected in 2012.

The best way to reverse that trend, Hall said, would be more New Orleans Police Officers on the streets, monitoring traffic.

Traffic Court finds itself at a crossroads as state lawmakers, lawyers and judges alike contemplate whether Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, has too many judgeships. A recent report by the government watchdog group, the Bureau of Governmental Research, calculated that one or two judges could handle the caseload presently divvied up among four judges. BGR had used the same formula being used by the Judicial Council, the state Supreme Court’s research arm, to assess the viability of courts across the state.

Hall and the judges had criticized that formula for not giving enough weight to the time it takes to adjudicate DWI cases, a point BGR noted in its report.

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