The DeSoto Parish District Attorney cost the local criminal justice system $1 million in revenue by allowing drivers to write checks to the DA’s office in exchange for dropping their traffic tickets, according to an investigation by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.
The audit confirms what The Lens found last year: District attorneys’ “traffic diversion” programs siphon funding from public defenders and other agencies.
Drivers may not have noticed that they were taking part in a redistribution of revenue.
When a driver pays a ticket in Louisiana, the fine and fees are typically split among several criminal justice agencies, such as the sheriff, the clerk of court and the public defender.
Under traffic diversion, drivers pay a fee to the DA’s office to have the ticket dismissed. In some cases, drivers must take an online course in safe driving.
The DeSoto Parish district attorney started diverting tickets in March 2017. Over the course of the next year, court revenue from traffic citations fell 84 percent, auditors found.
Meanwhile, the district attorney accrued more than $800,000 by diverting thousands of tickets.
If those tickets hadn’t been diverted, the court system would have taken in more than $1 million, which would’ve been doled out to 14 different agencies, the Legislative Auditor found.
Roger Harris, head of investigative audits for the agency, said it looked into the matter after receiving complaints in DeSoto that the program was costing other agencies revenue.
District Attorney Gary Evans said he wasn’t doing anything different than his peers. He argued that he shared the wealth by giving some of the money to the public defender’s office and paying state troopers and sheriff’s deputies through the LACE program.
LACE is a program in which the local district attorney pays law enforcement personnel to work overtime issuing traffic tickets. The LACE program run by the DeSoto Parish Sheriff’s Office is also being investigated by the Legislative Auditor.
The vast majority of tickets issued in DeSoto in March 2017 were LACE tickets. Evans offered diversion for 91 percent of them.
Fees may be ‘excessive and unreasonable’
The audit criticized the DA’s office for bringing in so much more revenue from the traffic diversion program than it cost to run it — in effect, creating another revenue stream for the office.
“That’s kind of why we started the diversion program, we just weren’t making the money,” District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla told The Lens last year. “It’s an industry that we created.”
The audit cited a state law specifying that diversion fees can be charged to pay the costs of the diversion program.
In the year examined by auditors, just 60 percent of the revenue raised by the DeSoto traffic diversion program went to expenses associated with the program.
”It appears the amounts charged and collected by the DA for traffic diversion may be excessive and unreasonable,” auditors wrote.
Drivers, however, saved money. The diversion fee was generally $200, auditors said. If the ticket had gone to court, they would’ve paid $267.50 between the fine and court costs.
Evans started sharing some of the diversion revenue last year with Steve Thomas, the local public defender. The arrangement was quickly thrown into limbo when a district judge declared it an unconstitutional conflict of interest.
Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, took issue with the auditors’ contention that the money was used improperly.
“I do agree that the revenues from pretrial diversion need to be spent in ways that are related to pretrial diversion,” he said. “But the scope of what that is, I do not agree with the Legislative Auditor on.”
Adams said traffic diversion revenue can be used for other services, such as diversion for misdemeanors and felonies.
He said he didn’t believe the audit would affect programs in other jurisdictions.
Diversion programs growing in popularity
But The Lens found that district attorneys throughout the state have created diversion programs similar to DeSoto’s.
As those programs have grown, the number of traffic tickets processed by local courts has dropped statewide. Some in the criminal justice community said that’s partly due to diversion.
No one tracks diversion programs, and district attorneys aren’t required to report that revenue separately. To track them, The Lens sought records from seven district attorneys, covering 11 parishes.
We found that those DAs diverted as many as half of their traffic tickets. Several said their programs are growing.
Meanwhile, the courts in most of those judicial districts saw a drop in tickets. Statewide, there was a 30 percent drop in tickets processed by courts from 2011 to 2016, according to data collected by the state Supreme Court.
In East and West Feliciana parishes, for example, the number of traffic tickets processed in court fell almost 40 percent over the last five years. The local district attorney diverted about half of all tickets in the years leading up to 2017, according to public records.
The district attorneys in Orleans and Jefferson parishes don’t run traffic diversion programs.
Louisiana is the only state where public defenders depend largely on traffic tickets for their funding. Their budgets have shrunk for years for a few reasons, primarily because the number of traffic tickets processed in court has dropped.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint last month with the Louisiana Ethics Board, asking it investigate traffic diversion programs statewide.