New Orleans LA March 31 2017 Izell Mayes says he can't remember the infraction that first earned him a fine in New Orleans traffic court back in 1989. All he remembers is he couldn't afford to pay it. So he missed court dates, a lot of them, and over the ensuing years, he racked up more tickets and tallied nearly $23,000 in additional fines and penalties.
Mayes, whose license was suspended in 1997, says driving to work was a terrifying, daily experience, with every police car representing the threat of being pulled over, handcuffed and thrown in jail. Not able to pay even a fraction of his court balance, Mayes says he resigned himself to the risk of imprisonment every time he got behind the wheel.
Then he heard about the Warrant Clinic, an event held in early March by Orleans Parish municipal and traffic court officials to help two groups of people: the nearly 30,000 people in the city who have outstanding warrants for missing court dates related to minor offenses - such as trespassing or public intoxication. And the countless number of people, like Mayes, saddled with thousands of dollars in traffic-related fines that resulted in the suspension of their driver's licenses, but can't afford to pay to break the cycle.
Over the course of 13 hours at the Corpus Christi Epiphany Catholic Church in the 7th Ward, more than 1,200 people showed up for the clinic, owing an average of $8,000 in court fines. They had their debts reduced in exchange for community service, while others had warrants cleared for misdemeanor offenses. The event was overseen by Municipal Court judges Desiree Charbonnet and Joseph Landry, and Traffic Court Judge Robert Jones.
Anza Becnel, an organizer with Stand with Dignity, the nonprofit that sponsored the event, said the purpose of the clinic was to eliminate obstacles that can prevent people from getting jobs and obtaining vehicle insurance, while removing the threat of jail from their lives.
"How many folks are living really desperately in poverty because they can't get employment, because they can't pass a criminal background check because they have a warrant?" Becnel said.
Mayes said he waited more than 12 hours before his name was called. The court clerk asked him what he thought he owed. Mayes said he told her around $14,000. She then wrote something on a piece of paper and slid it to him. It said he owed nearly $23,000.
Best case scenario, Mayes figured, he'd have to go on a payment plan to cover around 10 percent of the total. The woman then wrote the figure Mayes was required to pay, and slid that piece of paper towards him. Mayes said he picked it up and read the figure: $9.
"She asked me how I felt about that. So I asked her for a pen, wrote a smiley face on the piece of paper, and slid it back to her," he said. "She bust out laughing."
Now that he can drive legally, Mayes, 43, plans to apply for a position with the Regional Transit Authority, something he's wanted to do, but couldn't, for years.
"I feel like a new man," he said.
Stand with Dignity first got the idea for the Warrant Clinic from Municipal Court at the Mission, a program started in 2015 in which an ad hoc court was set up at a homeless shelter. That court clears warrants and fines for homeless men and women too poor to pay their debts, yet too afraid of possible arrest to go to the courthouse to try and resolve their issues.
Becnel said they wanted to expand that concept. They took the idea to Bill Quigley with the Loyola Law Clinic who put them in touch with Charbonnet. She recruited fellow judges Landry and Jones, after which the city attorney and Orleans Public Defenders agreed to take part. Quigley said the judges and all the various agencies were quick to sign on because they see the futility of the situation on a daily basis in the courtroom.
"It doesn't do any good to keep fines and fees on the books if you can't collect them," Quigley said. "And the law is clear, you can't put people in jail just because they can't afford to pay those fines and fees. I think the judges know it's better to have people with clear records who can get driver's licenses and insurance and a chance for a new start."
Jones said it is not unusual for people to rack up thousands of dollars in traffic violations. He said many people are pulled over and cited for more than one offense, such as speeding, an expired brake tag and no registration. That amounts to roughly $800, he said. If they fail to show up in court, which happens about 20 percent of the time, their license is automatically suspended. So the next time police stop them, they are hit with a $500 fine for driving without a license, in addition to the fines for whatever infractions caused the officer to pull them over in the first place, Jones said.
Now they are looking at close to $2,000. But they need to drive to get to work or school, risking additional police stops - each costing them upwards of $1,000 - in addition to being arrested, Jones said. That's how thousands of New Orleanians end up with crippling court debt.
Which explains why when word of the Warrant Clinic spread out, more than 1,200 people showed up - more than twice the 500 organizers expected.
"A majority of people we talked to have not had a driver's license since Katrina because they couldn't afford the $10,000 they owed in traffic fees," said Virginia Ryan with the Orleans Public Defender's Office. "This is a very progressive outlook and approach for New Orleans. The system typically criminalizes people because they are poor. That's what people are used to."
Stand with Dignity sees the clinic as part of a broader move towards reforming the city's criminal justice system. In January, the New Orleans City Council voted to allow people arrested for minor offenses to be released without bail. That came 10 months after the council passed an ordinance allowing police to issue tickets instead of arresting people for marijuana possession.
More changes are needed, advocates maintain. For example, driving with a suspended license remains one of only four driving-related offenses for which a person can be arrested in Orleans Parish. The other three - driving while intoxicated, reckless operation of a vehicle, and hit-and-run - put people at physical risk, which is not necessarily the case with someone not having a valid license.
Yet New Orleanians continue to be arrested and jailed for driving with a suspended license, though the number of arrests have steadily declined over the past several years, from a high of nearly 10,000 in 2009 to a low of 3,214 in 2014, according to statistics provided by the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
The reason, however, isn't because officers are choosing not to arrest people with misdemeanor warrants or suspended licenses, said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Crime Commission. It's because the police department has all but stopped conducting traffic checkpoints.
"Traffic and drug enforcement have gone off the cliff. It's not because we don't have traffic violators or a drug problem," Goyeneche said. "We just can't commit resources to doing that enforcement action because it means (police officers) can't respond to more serious calls for service."
NOPD spokesman Beau Tidwell said NOPD has shifted its traffic enforcement strategies from checkpoints to technology-oriented solutions such as speed and red light cameras. That frees up officers to respond to emergency calls, he said. They still execute DWI checkpoints, however, such as the one the department held March 22 which resulted in 170 vehicles checked, two DWI arrests and 28 citations.
Instead of holding periodic events such as the Warrant Clinic, Becnel said he would like to see the city enact a more permanent fix. This could include an ordinance that would eliminate warrants for minor non-violent offenses, while giving police the option of issuing summonses for people caught driving with suspended licenses instead of arresting them.
Something similar was done in Missouri in 2015 when the state passed a law that limits fines for minor traffic violations, eliminates charges for failure to appear in court, and prohibits a jail sentence for minor traffic offenses.
Charbonnet didn't comment on the prospect of passing such a law, but emphasized the people who attended the Warrant Clinic were not hardened criminals or convicted of violent acts.
"This is to address the difficulty many of the indigent defendants have paying fines and fees and then avoiding arrest because of that," she said. "These are misdemeanors, public intoxication, trespassing, disturbing the peace, not the crimes that place terror in our hearts when we read the newspaper every day. People had cases stemming 10 years back and they pretty much stayed out of trouble all that time."
The event was such a success that a second Warrant Clinic is being planned for the summer, Becnel said.
"This was a real win and an example of how grassroot organizations and institutions can come together to have major impact on people's lives," he said.