This Louisiana Town Runs Largely on Traffic Fines. If You Fight Your Ticket, the Mayor Is Your Judge.
Fenton, population 226, brings in over $1 million per year through its mayor’s court, an unusual justice system in which the mayor can serve as judge even though he’s responsible for town finances.
This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with WVUE-TV.
FENTON, La. -- The village of Fenton, outside the oil and gas town of Lake Charles, covers only about 20 blocks. There’s City Hall. The library. One gas station. A small public housing complex. A Dollar General. A grain elevator. A Baptist church. Drivers headed to east Texas from central Louisiana go right through town, passing it all in under a minute.
In many ways, Fenton is like other small towns in Louisiana. But it is remarkable in one way: This village of 226 people collected more money in a single year through fines and forfeitures, primarily traffic tickets, than almost any other municipality in Louisiana, according to audits.
In the year ending in June 2022, Fenton brought in $1.3 million that way.
The fines were collected through what’s known as a “mayor’s court”: a little-known type of small town court found only in Louisiana and Ohio. In Fenton, its primary function is processing the thousands of traffic tickets written annually by a few police officers. Here, the mayor is also the judge, appointing the prosecutor and, if drivers ask for a trial, deciding their guilt or innocence.
The mayor runs the village with revenue primarily made up of those fines. The bulk of the salaries of the people in the courtroom — everyone from the mayor to the clerk — comes from fines and fees collected by the court.
This arrangement is so ripe for conflict of interest that the fairness of mayor’s courts has been challenged several times. One case resulted in a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the power of mayors who take in a lot of money through their court.
Fenton village attorney Mike Holmes, in an email to WVUE-TV and ProPublica, said the mayor presides over court in a “neutral, impartial manner” consistent with Louisiana law.
But the village’s court records suggest something else about how it handles some tickets: Case summaries include curious notes from village employees and police officers. Some say not to “fix” tickets or reduce charges for drivers who had a “bad attitude.” Others suggest that the police chief and others have had a hand in dismissing charges, although Holmes said tickets are dismissed only at his direction.
Getting clear answers to how Fenton operates its court, and how fairly, has been difficult. Over four visits, journalists from WVUE and ProPublica reviewed court files, town meeting minutes, municipal ordinances and body camera video. We asked for three and a half years of electronic case summaries. We tried, several times, to see the court in action and to meet with the mayor, eventually observing court once and speaking with the mayor for five minutes.
Village officials offered conflicting and confusing explanations for the mayor’s role, how and why tickets are reduced or dismissed, why the town asks the state to suspend so many drivers’ licenses and how often trials are held. Their description of how the town runs its court didn’t align with state Judicial College guidance or that U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Such irregularities demonstrate the problems inherent in this unique court system in place across Louisiana, said Joel Friedman, an emeritus professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who has taught procedural law for 46 years.
“The mayor who’s trying to raise money for the city is in charge of prosecuting these minor criminal offenses and getting fines brought back to the city,” he said. “There’s no accountability,” he added. “They can do whatever they want.”
A few people well-versed in mayor’s courts, including an attorney who was intrigued enough to write a book about them, said Fenton shouldn’t allow the mayor to preside over court.
Small Town, Big Budget
Fenton is not unusual among small towns in Louisiana in administering justice through its mayor’s court.
Courts like this, which likely have been around since before Louisiana was a state, were carried over into the state’s modern judicial system when its constitution was updated in the 1970s, according to attorney Floyd Buras, who wrote that book on mayor’s courts. Now, they function as an informal way to handle minor offenses in about 250 municipalities, mostly small towns and villages.
Mayor’s courts operate in a gray area of Louisiana law. Like municipal courts, they handle violations of local ordinances. Municipal judges must hold a law degree and pass the bar; a mayor can preside over court without meeting any qualifications. Yet, like a municipal judge, a mayor can impose fines or sentence people to jail.
Mayor’s courts must ensure defendants have fair trials. But unlike other courts in the state, they aren’t subject to rules like the Code of Criminal Procedure that are supposed to ensure courts are run fairly and properly.
“They sort of operate in the shadow of the law,” said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, a law firm that litigates for civil rights in criminal justice.
Fenton’s court is the main reason the town’s revenue for the year ending in June 2022 was about five times as high as the average Louisiana municipality its size. This tiny village collected about as much through fines and forfeitures as Shreveport, the state’s third-largest city, with a population of 187,000. (The state provides no official definition of “fines and forfeitures,” but it generally refers to penalties for breaking the law and associated fees.)
The average municipality in the U.S. gets 1.7% of its revenue from fines and forfeitures, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that promotes equity. In Fenton, it’s 92.5%.
That’s the highest percentage of any municipality in Louisiana, according to a survey by WVUE and ProPublica of audits on file with the state.
It’s also one of the highest percentages in the whole country. In a frequently cited review of local government data by the news outlet Governing in 2019, Fenton ranked second-highest for its share of revenue that came from fines and forfeitures.
Governing said nearly 600 jurisdictions in the U.S., including 70 in Louisiana, collected at least 10% of general fund revenue through fines and forfeitures.
Advocates for the poor say a reliance on fines, which they call “taxation by citation,” distorts the role of police departments. “It’s almost impossible to generate that much of your revenue without doing pretty abusive things,” said Joanna Weiss, co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which promotes what it calls equitable fines and the elimination of fees in the justice system.
Holmes, the attorney for Fenton, said fines make up an outsized share of its revenue because, like many other small towns, it doesn’t bring in much money from sales or property taxes. “While revenues fluctuate from year to year, Village of Fenton Police Department has long had an active traffic enforcement policy,” he wrote.
That enforcement is particularly active on the north side of town, where U.S. Route 165 shifts from a divided highway to a five-lane road. Just before drivers reach a welcome sign, the speed limit drops from 65 mph to 50. Police cruisers often wait nearby, in a stand of trees across from a small roadside cemetery.
That’s where Nikki Cross got her ticket last year. She was returning to Bridge City, Texas, about 70 miles away, to pick up her son after meeting a client north of Lake Charles for her sales job.
Cross said she braked when she saw the speed limit drop. She was ticketed for driving 61 mph in a 50 mph zone. “I told them I was slowing down at the time; I just didn’t slam on my brakes to get to the speed I needed to be at,” Cross said in a text message to WVUE and ProPublica.
Her fine: $210.00.
Mayor, Judge and Jury
Legally, there’s nothing improper about a town like Fenton collecting so much of its revenue through its mayor’s court. But when it does, court rulings say, the mayor shouldn’t both hold the town’s gavel and sign its paychecks.
In a 1972 case, a driver contesting two $50 traffic tickets in Monroeville, Ohio, argued that he had been denied a fair trial because the mayor who ruled against him was responsible for law enforcement and for producing revenue for the town. At the time, Monroeville generated 37% to 51% of its annual revenue from its mayor’s court, much less than Fenton.
The case, Ward v. Monroeville, went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 7-2 decision, Justice William Brennan Jr. wrote that the issue turned on “whether the Mayor can be regarded as an impartial judge.” He can’t, Brennan wrote, if he presides over court and also manages the town’s finances, and if the court generates a substantial part of the town’s revenue.
A week later, the Louisiana attorney general’s office followed up with an opinion instructing Louisiana towns with mayor’s courts to assess whether they were in a similar situation as Monroeville.
Subsequent rulings have cited that Supreme Court opinion. In 1995, a federal judge in Ohio ruled that a mayor could be considered biased on the bench if just 10% of the town’s revenue came from its mayor’s court. In 2019, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a judge in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court had a conflict of interest when setting bail bonds because the court collected a fee based on the amount of each bond.
A training video on mayor’s courts released this year by the Louisiana Judicial College, the educational arm of the state Supreme Court, addresses this conflict of interest. It advises mayors to appoint an attorney to preside over their court if it brings in more than 10% of the town’s revenue. Some towns, including many in the New Orleans area, have done that.
But we found at least nine other municipalities in the state where staff confirmed that the mayor presides over court even though collections make up anywhere from 18% to 79% of the town’s annual revenue.
Bobby King, the prosecutor for the mayor’s court in Walker, near Baton Rouge, led that Louisiana Judicial College video training. In an interview, he said he would advise Fenton, or any municipality in its position, to appoint a magistrate. “You can’t be fair and impartial,” he said, “if you’re wanting to spend money on a park and a big part of that money comes from fines and fees.”
Yet it was not easy to determine who presides over court in Fenton. In a phone call in June, Eddie Alfred Jr., who has been the village’s mayor since 2009, was eager to talk about its traffic ticketing system. But he said he doesn’t preside over court.
Instead, Alfred said, defendants talk to Holmes, the prosecutor. If someone pleads not guilty, Holmes shows the driver a video of their violation. After that, Alfred claimed, “not one person” has maintained their innocence since he has been mayor. If they did, he said, they would go to the district court in Jennings, the seat of Jefferson Davis Parish.
When we visited Fenton in September to observe court, “Judge Alfred,” as he is referred to in court records, donned a black judge’s robe, walked down the hall from the mayor’s office and sat at the bench. No one was waiting to have their cases heard. After Holmes noted for the record that several people had missed their court date, Alfred said, “Court is now adjourned.” Afterward, he refused to speak with us and went back to his office.
Holmes later confirmed that Alfred does preside over court; when asked about the mayor’s statement to the contrary, Holmes said it “must have resulted from misunderstanding or miscommunication.” Asked why the mayor serves as judge when the village collects so much money from the court, Holmes said, “He is authorized to do so by law.”
Four lawyers who spoke with us — the law professor, the author of the book on mayor’s courts, the civil rights attorney and the prosecutor who led the Judicial College training — said they believe Fenton is violating the Supreme Court ruling.
“Even if you can’t point to the mayor actually being on the record saying, ‘I have to keep up these prosecutions to maintain this funding,’ the fact that the average person put in that mayor’s shoes might feel that temptation — that’s kind of enough,” Foley said.
Actually, Fenton’s mayor has said something quite similar.
In a recording made in September and obtained by WVUE and ProPublica, Alfred can be heard telling village employees that there could be layoffs due to financial problems.
“Our main income is traffic tickets, and they ain’t getting written,” he said, according to one person who was in the meeting and another village employee who identified the voice on the recording as the mayor’s. They asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “We need to write more traffic tickets.”
Holmes, who handled our inquiries, did not respond to our request for comment on that statement.
The Cost of Being Rude
Fenton’s court records paint a picture of a justice system in which some people are punished for how they act while others are rewarded for who they know.
We found a dozen court records that include notations from officers and village employees saying not to “help” people or “fix” their tickets because drivers were rude. On a ticket for driving 71 mph in a 50: “Refused phone number, driver was very disrespectful no help.” Fine: $305.
A ticket for 81 in a 50: “Very bad attitude. Do not fix.” Fine: $490.
Video from an officer’s body camera during one traffic stop shows a woman, stopped for driving 62 mph, asking the officer to show her the radar reading and to let her go with a warning.
“What else do you guys do around this town?” she asked the officer after he handed her a ticket.
“Protect and serve,” he responded.
Her file reads, “Bad attitude.” She was fined $215.
Holmes said notes about drivers’ behavior have nothing to do with how cases are decided. “A defendant is not punished for rude behavior during a traffic stop, but rather for objective, provable violations of law,” he told WVUE and ProPublica. Besides, he said, the vast majority of drivers decide to pay their tickets. (We spoke to several drivers with such notations in their files. Of those three, two said they didn’t contest their charges; the third said he couldn’t remember.)
Fourteen court files include notations saying a charge was dismissed after someone, often in law enforcement, had intervened. “Dismissed per Chief Alfred,” said the record for a ticket issued to someone who, according to the notation, knew a village employee.
Luther Alfred, the chief, said he sometimes gets requests to dismiss tickets and passes them on to the judge or prosecutor. Though he acknowledged that he has written “Dismiss” on paperwork and signed his name, he said he doesn’t dismiss charges himself and doesn’t have that authority.
Phillip Hattaway’s file for a speeding ticket he received in 2022 says, “Ivy Woods asked to dismiss per O’Quinn.” Woods is the sheriff of Jefferson Davis Parish, and Sgt. Vernon O’Quinn is Fenton’s police sergeant. In an interview, Hattaway said he contacted people he knew in law enforcement, asking for help. His ticket was dismissed. “It was short and sweet,” Hattaway said. “They just got it taken care of.”
O’Quinn said the department was “asked if we could provide any assistance,” and he “advised he didn’t have a problem with it and recommended to the prosecutor for dismissal.”
Asked why his name appears on court records, Woods said many people ask if he can get tickets reduced to nonmoving violations. “You’d be surprised how many tickets Fenton writes,” he said. “They’re pretty tough — they like their money.”
But he didn’t acknowledge calling in any favors, saying that the village “might be covering their butts, saying the sheriff asked.” Although he offered to elaborate later, he didn’t respond to subsequent phone calls.
In response to questions for this article, Holmes said, “Requests for consideration to amend or dismiss charges are received from myriad sources.” He didn’t answer a question about how the village decides which requests to act on.
We reached out to more than 100 drivers, including about 40 whose files said something about their behavior or why a ticket had been dismissed, and interviewed about 35. Several said they felt like they had been caught in a speed trap or said they had heard from others about Fenton’s reputation for traffic enforcement.
Fenton “most certainly does NOT operate a ‘speed trap,’” Holmes wrote to WVUE and ProPublica. Speed limits are well marked, police officers are stationed in the open, and tickets are rarely issued unless drivers are going more than 11 mph over the limit, he said.
Several drivers said they had been threatened with license suspensions or even arrest, both of which are allowed under state law.
When April Dugas called to ask for leniency on a ticket for driving 65 in a 50 mph zone, she said she was told Fenton issues warrants for unpaid tickets. “I was living in Texas in my car with no money for gas to go back,” said Dugas, who now lives in the central Louisiana city of Alexandria. “My grandma had to pay the ticket, so I wouldn’t have warrants out for my arrest.”
Holmes didn’t respond to a question about whether village employees threaten drivers with arrest if they don’t pay. He did say the village sometimes issues an arrest warrant to compel someone’s appearance in court, typically when they don’t show up for trial, but it’s “fairly rare.”
For those who miss court and don’t pay, the consequences can be severe. Fenton sent the Louisiana Office of Motor Vehicles about 750 requests to suspend driver’s licenses between 2018 and June, a number on par with much larger municipalities in the state.
Asked why Fenton does this, Holmes at first said state law requires municipalities to notify the state when someone doesn’t show up for court. He later acknowledged that’s not true and cited a two-year deadline under state law to request a suspension.
The village has asked the state to suspend some drivers’ licenses over a single unpaid speeding ticket, records show.
That’s what happened to Santina Griffin, a hairdresser in New Orleans who was stopped for driving 74 mph in a 50 mph zone on her way back from a funeral. She said she meant to ask the judge for leniency because she was lost at the time. But as a student and a single mom, she couldn’t make it back to Fenton for her court appearance.
She was surprised to hear the judge was also the mayor: “Sounds like a monopoly to me.”
Court Is In Session
In a town the size of Fenton, visitors are conspicuous. We were especially so — four journalists toting notebooks and a video camera, driving around town, flying a drone overhead, watching police officers wait for speeders.
After checking out the town, we went to its small City Hall, where we encountered Luther Alfred, the police chief and uncle of the mayor, and O’Quinn, who came up to us to chat. We had been driving around recording video for a couple of hours by then, and they mentioned some places we had been. O’Quinn chuckled about a man who had warned us to keep our drone away from his house about 15 minutes earlier.
The people of Fenton care about three things, O’Quinn said: “Christ, family and the Fenton Police Department.”
We wanted to see how the court handled tickets written by that police department, but we saw the mayor handle cases just once in the four times we went to court.
Over the summer, Alfred had promised to talk to us when we came for the August court session. That was the first time we made the three-hour trek from New Orleans. But the mayor skipped our interview and canceled court without notice, surprising us and a few defendants waiting at City Hall.
When we went back in September, no defendants showed up. A court staffer later told us that few people come to court. Before the October hearing, we called ahead to arrange a time to review some files. A few days beforehand, court was canceled without explanation.
Last week, we gave it one last shot. This time, as our reporter pulled up to City Hall, she was surprised to see cars parked along the road. She took the only open spot, a patch of grass outside a utility building.
As a dozen defendants filtered in, Holmes, the prosecutor, fetched some chairs from the kitchen to accommodate them. He described what would happen. Tonight, he said, they were in what’s called a mayor’s court. This was an arraignment, where they would each enter a plea. He spent about 20 minutes describing their rights: You have the right to appeal to district court. You have the right not to incriminate yourself.
Holmes had told us that he offers plea deals to many drivers, and he did just that, telling them to meet him in the kitchen if they were interested.
Then he called the judge in. Alfred, wearing his judge’s robe, sat at a large wooden desk emblazoned with the village seal. Holmes called up each driver to answer to their charges before the judge. Most pleaded no contest, which means they didn’t admit guilt but accepted punishment.
When a driver wants to contest a ticket, Holmes had told us, the driver or a lawyer shows up in court, pleads not guilty and is told to return later. “A trial is conducted with all care to ensure each defendant receives due process and is treated fairly before the court,” he said.
That’s not what happened with one case that night. One man, facing a charge of failing to use his turn signal, insisted he was innocent. The mayor told him to wait so O’Quinn could find video of the stop and play it in court. The video was inconclusive, however, and the driver maintained his innocence. Holmes said if the officer were called to testify, he likely would say the driver had broken the law. But he suggested the charge be dropped, and the mayor agreed.
Under state law, mayor’s courts are required to keep a record of all trials, but we had been told there was none and that there hadn’t been a trial since at least 2018. Holmes had told us the mayor “is rarely called upon to pass judgment at trial.”
Afterward, our reporter went up to ask Holmes more questions. The mayor called her into the kitchen. He wanted to make sure she had noticed how lenient the court had been with defendants.
“We’re not without compassion,” Holmes said.
Alfred said he believes he’s a fair judge, despite all the money he collects through court. But, he said, we’d been asking a lot of questions. “Now,” he said, “we have to hire someone.”
That was the topic of discussion a week later, when the three members of the board of aldermen held their monthly meeting in the same kitchen where Holmes had arranged plea deals. “The mayor can’t be the judge,” Alfred said, “which to me does not make sense.” A man named Hugh Cunningham, who presides over mayor’s court in a nearby town, stood up and described how he would run the court if hired.
Board members objected. “We have to pay somebody to be the judge when he was judging for nothing,” said one board member about Alfred.
For about 15 minutes, Holmes laid out why the town should appoint a magistrate: the Supreme Court ruling, attorney general’s opinions, the possible appearance of bias.
Under the law, Holmes said, it’s up to the mayor to appoint a magistrate; the board votes on that decision. It didn’t take long for Alfred to make up his mind: “I think we should put it off because I think this court is fair.”
How We Reported This Story
Louisiana law requires municipalities to turn in yearly financial reports to the state auditor. Over several months, we reviewed the most recent available annual audits for all 301 municipalities and two combined city-parish governments required to file audits with the state. We compared revenue from fines and forfeitures to overall governmental revenue.
There is no official government definition of fines and forfeitures in those audits, but the terms generally cover penalties for breaking the law and associated fees. In some places, they could include collections outside court, such as library fines and traffic camera tickets. Fenton’s attorney confirmed that its total is made up of fines and fees collected through mayor’s court for violations of municipal ordinance. A small number of municipalities’ audits did not include a line item for fines and forfeitures.
We compared all municipalities, regardless of whether they had a mayor’s court. (There is no official list of municipalities in Louisiana with mayor’s courts, but the state Supreme Court said there are about 250.) Of all the municipalities we reviewed, Fenton’s share of total revenue from fines and forfeitures was the highest.
Correction, Nov. 22, 2023: This story originally contained an inaccurate description of what the Fines and Fees Justice Center advocates for. The organization promotes equitable fines and the elimination of fees in the justice system, not equitable fees.
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