The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint this week asking the Louisiana Ethics Board to investigate district attorneys’ traffic diversion programs, after a Lens investigation revealed prosecutors were using those programs to siphon ticket revenue directly into their own coffers.

The programs give drivers a choice: pay the DA directly in exchange for having the charge dropped, or let it go to court — where they’ll pay a fine and court costs if they’re convicted.

Allowing — and in some cases, encouraging — drivers to pay prosecutors directly amounts to paying for their tickets to be dismissed, the civil rights group alleges. And that, it argues, violates the state ethics code, which prohibits prosecutors and other public officials from profiting from their positions.

“District attorneys across the state openly violate Louisiana’s ethics laws by using their charging authority as a cudgel to extract millions of dollars each year from residents,” Southern Poverty Law Center Staff Attorney Micah West wrote in the complaint.

In the complaint, the group named four district attorneys that made millions of dollars last year from traffic diversion fees. Two of them relied on traffic diversion for more than half their total revenue.

St. Charles Parish, just upriver from New Orleans, generated about $1 million from traffic diversions, according to the complaint. The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office does not run a traffic diversion program.

The complaint cites a district attorney who told The Lens last year that his office created its diversion program because “we just weren’t making the money,” referring to it as an “industry.”

The Lens investigation showed prosecutors across the state were using diversion programs — designed to keep first-time offenders out of jail — as a way to keep the revenue from traffic tickets instead of splitting it with other agencies, as they would with normal traffic fines. Public defense programs — largely funded by traffic tickets — were suffering as a result.

A driver in West Baton Rouge Parish, for example, could pay the DA’s office $175 in “diversion fees” that would lead to his ticket being dismissed, West wrote in the complaint.

The ticket says that if drivers opt for diversion, failing to pay the fee will result in their licenses being suspended, “even though district attorneys have no legal authority … to suspend licenses for non-payment of diversion fees,” West wrote.

Asked about the legality of the program last year, Louisiana District Attorneys Association Executive Director Pete Adams told The Lens that prosecutors have discretion to pursue or decline prosecution as they see fit.

This week, Adams again defended the programs, calling the group’s research faulty. “We’ll put that in our response to the ethics complaint.” 

“They should be making diversion decisions based on what’s just and fair, and not … what is most profitable for the DA’s office.”—Micah West, Southern Poverty Law Center

But the law center alleges that DAs are abusing that discretion. West, the lawyer who submitted the complaint, said he was concerned by news reports, including the investigation by The Lens. West said it appeared that prosecutors were using the program mainly to boost revenue.

“They should be making diversion decisions based on what’s just and fair, and not … what is most profitable for the DA’s office,” he said.

DeSoto Parish District Attorney Gary Evans, one of the prosecutors named in the complaint, said the West’s interpretation is unfair because the program is voluntary. DAs don’t threaten drivers with anything, he said. “They can participate if they want to, or not participate.”

The state Legislative Auditor launched its own investigation into traffic diversion last year and plans to release their findings soon, according to director of investigative audits Roger Harris.

State Rep. Denise Marcelle (D-Baton Rouge) introduced a bill last year that would have regulated the practice, but the DA’s association persuaded her to retract it.

The district attorneys named in the complaint use diversion revenue to pay overtime for police officers and buy vehicles. After criticism from sheriffs and public defenders, some district attorneys have started sharing the revenue with other criminal justice agencies.

The Southern Poverty Law Center claims this defies a 1993 state Attorney General’s opinion that says prosecutors should only incur diversion fees to cover the costs of the program.

The group is asking the state ethics board to order prosecutors to return the revenue the program generated. The board will vote on whether to refer the complaint to investigation.

Samantha Sunne

Samantha Sunne is a freelance journalist in New Orleans. She's worked for Reuters, The Washington Post, the American Press Institute and other publications.