NEW ORLEANS — A federal judge heard arguments Wednesday in a 2015 lawsuit that accuses the state criminal court in New Orleans of running what amounts to a “debtors’ prison.”
A lawyer for New Orleans criminal district court judges told U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance that she should dismiss the suit, which was filed by plaintiffs who say they were unconstitutionally jailed for owing court debts.
The judges’ attorney said court debts owed by the original defendants have been resolved. And she said the judges no longer allow court collection department to issue arrest warrants — a practice targeted in the lawsuit. She said the courts painstakingly went through thousands of records to make sure no arrests would be made on such warrants.
“No one is going to be arrested for not paying a court fine,” said Celeste Brustowicz, representing the New Orleans judges.
Vance at times questioned whether there was sufficient documentary evidence in New Orleans judges’ filings to back up such a claim. “I don’t see anything before me that says that,” she told Brustowicz.
Arguing for the plaintiffs, attorney Mateya Kelley said a judicial declaration that the New Orleans courts’ actions were unconstitutional is needed. While the practices may have stopped for now, Kelley said, the state judges have defended their practices.
“The one thing they’re not willing to do is admit that it’s a problem to jail people because they are unable to pay,” said Kelley, a Washington attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
There were six plaintiffs in the original lawsuit, which said thousands of impoverished people in New Orleans are threatened with arrest each year for nonpayment of court debts and that hundreds have been jailed over the past several years without having a hearing on whether they were able to pay.
The lawsuit is one of several similar actions filed in multiple states by civil rights groups.
One was settled recently in the southeastern Louisiana city of Bogalusa, where the city court agreed to establish whether an individual is indigent at sentencing. It also agreed to not jail a person for failing to pay unless it first finds that nonpayment was willful.