by David M. Reutter
Pretrial diversion programs have traditionally been used to “divert” criminal defendants to drug rehab and counseling programs. Some Louisiana prosecutors, however, have used it to create an industry that diverts traffic ticket revenue to them.
On the way home from work one day, Jay Dixon was issued a ticket for speeding. As the deputy handed him the ticket, he told Dixon to turn it over. On the back were instructions to pay the $175 fine by mail with a money order made out to “DA P.T.D.” The deputy told him that if he paid the ticket that way, it would not go through court or land on his record.
“Who wouldn’t want to do that?” Dixon asked. The problem with the P.T.D., which stands for pre-trial diversion, is that it contributes to the defunding of public defenders. As the Louisiana public defender, Dixon receives requests for money from local public defenders who have been hurt by pre-trial diversion programs involving traffic tickets.
Louisiana prosecutors began using P.T.D. for tickets after public defenders said they needed $100 from each court case, which was an increase from $35. Prosecutors and sheriffs associations protested, so legislators increased the share to just $45.
“That was theft of our portion of the fines and forfeitures,” whined E. Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney Association. “We let them steal less money than they were going to steal from us.” In truth, the legislature did not shift funds from prosecutors to public defenders. Rather, it increased the fee for public defenders. The true theft has come from prosecutors keeping tickets from the courts, depriving them of revenue. In turn, the public defenders suffer loss of revenue because most of their funding comes from court costs.
The Louisiana Supreme Court reported that from 2011 to 2012 the number of tickets dropped by 42 percent. District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla said he created a P.T.D. program to pay officers working overtime to write traffic tickets, “And that’s kind of why we started the diversion program, we just weren’t making the money,” he said. “It’s an industry we created.”
And all across the state, it is a growing industry. Plaquemines Parish D.A. diverted only 22 traffic tickets in 2011; in 2016, it diverted 278. P.T.D. is very lucrative. The Calcasieu Parish D.A. reported $800,000 in revenue from it in 2014. According to one D.A.’s website, 35 of the 42 judicial districts in Louisiana operate a P.T.D., but it does not say how many are for traffic tickets.
The P.T.D. program from tickets has affected the budgets of public defenders, so that some have had to cut staff or contracted attorneys. “My problem is [prosecutors are] taking our money, and we need it to survive,” said Calcasieu Parish Public Defender Harry Fontenot. That is the dilemma shared by public defenders throughout the state.
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