from the going-to-the-well-far-too-often dept
Law enforcement for profit is an ugly proposition. Most of us immediately think of civil asset forfeiture, which is generally just cops going shopping for stuff they want or cash to buy the stuff they want that isn’t subject to outside oversight.
But there’s another undercurrent of corruption that runs through small town America — places where cops and their supposed oversight have converted small stretches of highway into ATMs.
Everyone knows these small towns that have converted themselves to speed traps are corrupt. They’re overseen by people who see themselves as the second coming of Buford T. Justice and, for all intents and purposes, act as though their sole job is filling a burlap sack featuring a Sharpie-inscribed dollar sign.
It’s not a new thing, not even for Techdirt. Going back almost a decade, we find this article detailing the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety pulling the plug on Stringtown, OK — a town with a population of 410 that somehow managed to rake in nearly $500,000 in speeding ticket fines alone in 2013. That total represented 76% of the town’s total budget for that year. That would be the second time the town was stripped of its ability to write speeding tickets. The first occurred about a decade earlier.
Four years later, it was the town of New Miami, Ohio making national headlines. The small town was ordered by the state Appeals Court to refund more than $3 million in speed camera citation fees, ending a six-year battle between those wronged and the government that profited from being wrong. The court said the town was free to collect fines for speeding, so long as it could find a way to do it constitutionally. But the town argued being constitutional was too hard, an assertion the court disagreed with.
A few years later another small town was making national news for treating highway drivers like blank checks, rather than citizens with long-recognized rights. Brookside, Alabama was completely subservient to its police force whose hunger for cash had converted a nearby highway into a playground for opportunists and the local court into a kangaroo court for out-of-town drivers. Drivers reported receiving as many as 12 tickets during a single traffic stop with all infractions being routed through a court whose parking routinely overflowed with out-of-town drivers seeking to challenge obviously bullshit citations.
Now, it’s time for Fenton, Louisiana to experience the national spotlight. As of 2010, Fenton was home to 379 residents in space covering roughly 20 blocks. 2010 was apparently the town’s population watershed. As ProPublica notes in its expose of this speed trap town, the current population barely clears 200. Fenton contains one city hall, one library, one gas station, and one extremely opportunistic police force.
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.
Yeah… let’s not even pretend this is fine or normal or in any way justified by state or local laws. This is corruption supported by local leaders and carried out by local law enforcement. The fines were collected by something called the “mayor’s court” — a quasi-judicial operation that can only be found in two states: Louisiana (home of the parish!) and Ohio (see above!). All the court does — at least in the case of Fenton — is process the hundreds of tickets and millions in fines supposedly racked up by drivers who had the misfortune of venturing in or near this completely corrupt town.
Who stands to benefit from this arrangement? Well, it’s pretty much everyone who’s a part of this arrangement.
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.
The conflicts of interest are so apparent those involved refuse to discuss them. The former village attorney, Mike Holmes, boldly and falsely claimed the mayor’s court operates in a “neutral, impartial manner.” The mayor offered no comment at all.
It doesn’t matter. The numbers tell the story the principal participants won’t.
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%.
This makes it apparent the town government serves itself. It may somehow serve the extremely small community by raking in millions in cash every year, but it does so by committing highway robbery. And, despite being subject to previous court rulings ordering the mayor’s court to behave in a less self-interested manner, the town of Fenton still runs its court in a way that ensures those benefiting directly from this unnatural partnership with law enforcement will continue to enrich themselves at the expense of due process.
Eddie Alfred Jr. is the mayor of Fenton and the “judge” who presides over the mayor’s court. He does this despite telling ProPublica he does not, instead claiming defendants are required to speak to the town’s prosecutor if they wish to challenge their citations. Despite his assertion he does not preside over the court, this is what ProPublica observed during its visit to Fenton’s court:
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 [the local prosecutor] 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.
Those are the actions of someone who knows their actions are indefensible. They’re also the actions of someone who never expected their lies to be exposed by reporters who don’t actually live near Fenton, Louisiana. Alfred underestimated ProPublica. And because he did, he had to do a hasty walk of shame out of the court and into his office where he could safely ignore requests for comments.
Records also show drivers who don’t show enough deference to local cops are hit with higher fines than those who are more subservient. Notes written on tickets let the court know which drivers were “rude” and request these drivers not be allowed to talk their way out of citations with less-than-subtle phrases like “Bad attititude! DO NOT FIX!”
If a driver decides to blow off this small town and its mercenary version of law enforcement, the town does everything it can to punish them anyway.
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.
When asked about this policy, the local prosecutor claimed state law required instant reporting of missed traffic court dates. When asked again, the prosecutor admitted he had lied:
He later acknowledged that’s not true and cited a two-year deadline under state law to request a suspension.
Say what you will about Big Brother or federal overreach, but sometimes, it’s the smallest towns with the smallest police forces that are the biggest bullies. All we can hope is that being exposed for what they truly are will force this town to change its ways. On the other hand, there’s no legitimate way this town can get its hands on $3 million in funding without pulling bullshit like this. And when there are millions on the line, it’s extremely easy to ignore the criticism of the people footing the bill.