Has the Justice Department Found a New Town that Preys on Its Poor?

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

April 27, 2015

When the federal government investigates a police department, it’s usually looking at allegations that officers use excessive force or racially profile residents.

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said that it was coming to the rural Louisiana town of Ville Platte, to investigate the police department and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office, which is also headquartered in the town. It said it would look into allegations that the officers detain residents in their jails without proper cause.

This appears to be the first time the DOJ has opened a “pattern or practice investigation” solely into the practice of improper detentions. Under this type of probe, the Justice Department looks for constitutional violations. If it finds any, the department has the power to sue law enforcement agencies to correct them.

It’s not clear whether a specific incident prompted the investigation; the Department of Justice is notoriously tight-lipped about its motives for targeting a particular law enforcement agency. In its announcement, the DOJ said it was looking into allegations that law enforcement in Ville Platte improperly keep people in jail under “investigative holds” — detained without charges while officials investigate a crime.

“A Monetary Windfall for the City”

But civil-rights activists in Louisiana say that improper detentions are only part of a broader problem in Ville Platte, a city in which they say residents are cited for frivolous violations, excessively fined and put in jail when they cannot pay.

It’s a system that on its face appears similar to some of what Justice Department officials found in Ferguson, Mo., where the police department, at the behest of the city, regularly ticketed mostly African-American residents for violations like “manner of walking in roadway,” and then funneled that money into the city coffers. Those who couldn’t pay were sent to jail.

The difference is that in Ferguson, Justice Department officials didn’t start out looking for what they ultimately found to be an entrenched, discriminatory system of fees and fines.

Ville Platte, a town of roughly 7,400, has a documented history of ticketing and jailing residents for improper reasons.

Arthur Sampson, a veteran and retired local NAACP leader, told FRONTLINE that he had filed complaints with the Justice Department for years about the practice. In 2011, he filed a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union over a curfew the city had imposed in January of that year. The new law required pedestrians — but not drivers — to be indoors after 10 p.m. or face jail time or a $200 fine, a measure that disproportionately impacted low-income residents.

Under the curfew, people couldn’t walk their dogs, go to the corner store or visit their friends at night, unless they had a car.

Police soon began making arrests, sweeping up “hundreds” of residents every night just for being outside after 10 p.m., according to the complaint. The mayor, Jennifer Vidrine, said at the time that she had imposed the curfew in response to a series of car break-ins, and that it would last for 60 days. The city council extended it three times.

The bevy of new fines from curfew violators created a “monetary windfall for the city,” the complaint said, “and thus, a tremendous incentive to continue the curfew.”

It’s not clear how much revenue the ordinances generated, but they did appear to exact a toll on some residents. In February 2011, the Ville Platte Gazette published the list of bench warrants issued by the city court for the previous two months. A full 60 percent of those were cited for a failure to pay fines, a charge that rarely appeared in bench warrants in preceding months, according to a review of warrants published in the local paper.

To settle Sampson’s suit, the city entered into a legally binding agreement to do away with the curfew, and avoid imposing a new one unless it was deemed necessary for the city. In the deal, the city denied any wrongdoing.

“Appropriate Dress” Laws

But there are still other troubling rules on the books, say civil rights advocates. “They have a lot of overly punitive and some idiosyncratic ordinances that lead to incarcerating people for things that shouldn’t be infractions at all,” said Marjorie Esman, the Louisiana ACLU’s executive director. Esman said she has been following events in Ville Platte for several years.

One is a ban on sagging pants. Specifically, the city’s municipal code requires that pants be “size appropriate and secured at the waist to prevent the pants from falling more than three inches below the hips (crest of the ilium) causing exposure of the person or the person’s undergarments.”

The city also requires residents to wear “something reflective as an outer garment such as an armband, or parka” when walking after dark.”The reflective material is to be visible from all directions,” a town ordinance reads. “This will enable drivers to see the walking resident more clearly.”

The police began enforcing that ordinance in January 2011, at the same time as the curfew, according to city council meeting minutes.

The penalty for violating either rule is a fine with a maximum penalty of $200 — and 30 days in jail for those who can’t pay it.

Sampson said low-income residents, most of them African-American, don’t have reflective clothing and are more likely to be affected by the law. More than 54 percent of Ville Platte’s residents are black; the rest are almost all white. About 39 percent of all residents live in poverty.

Residents who can’t pay the fee are put on probation, where they must pay a fine of $35 each month until they pay off the full ticket fee.

Some people just give up trying to cover the mounting costs and ask for jail time, Sampson said. “It’s a racket,” he said. “Something needs to be done about the injustice that’s been going on here.”

City Judge Greg Vidrine, who has been in office since January and is not related to the mayor, said that fines for violating minor ordinances, such as the reflective clothing rule, don’t usually incur the maximum $200 fine. He also said that the court works with people who are trying to pay their debts. So far, he said, he wasn’t aware of anyone who had to serve jail time for failing to pay while he has been on the bench.

But it could happen, he said. “What’s the alternative? Not having the money to pay the fine should not grant you license to break the law.”

Vidrine said he couldn’t say whether or not the law was improper, as civil-rights advocates have argued. “All I can say is that it is in place right now,” he said. “Like all our laws, you may not agree with it, but as a citizen within our limits you are bound to follow it. It’s the duty of the police and the entire judicial system to enforce the laws that are currently in place.”

Neal Lartigue, the police chief, said, “As far as I’m concerned, the department is running correctly.” He said that the department would cooperate “100 percent” with the federal investigation, but declined to comment further, referring questions about the reasons for the probe to the DOJ. “I’m the victim here,” he said. “I’m the one that is a suspect.”

Neither the mayor nor the sheriff’s department returned phone calls seeking a comment. A DOJ spokeswoman declined to comment beyond the initial press release announcing the investigation.

In a statement to the local paper, Mayor Vidrine said the city would “comply and cooperate 100 percent” with the Justice Department officials. “Our goal will be to take any corrective measures which they recommend or mandate in reference to their findings,” she said. “Protecting and serving the citizens of our community is the priority here and that will not be compromised.”

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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