Appellate judges question legality of DeSoto DA's LACE program

Appellate court hears DeSoto case stemming from LACE inquiry
Published: Aug. 14, 2018 at 10:05 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 15, 2018 at 12:16 AM CDT
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SHREVEPORT, LA (KSLA) - After hearing arguments for 40 minutes, a three-judge panel of the Louisiana 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal now will decide whether the DeSoto Parish district attorney is violating the Constitution and state law regarding the way his office is distributing funds from a traffic ticket diversion program.

The case is another chapter in the ongoing controversy surrounding use of the LACE (Local Agency Compensated Enforcement) overtime ticket-writing program in DeSoto.

District Attorney Gary Evans took over LACE operations from the DeSoto Parish Sheriff's Office in March 2017 and began offering traffic offenders the opportunity to have their tickets dismissed if the motorists pay the DA's office a $200 fee and read a two-page driver safety brochure.

According to an audit conducted by the Louisiana legislative auditor's office, Evans' office generated $700,904.07 from LACE ticket diversion fees during the first year it was in place.

Diversion reportedly had a significant impact on funding for the DeSoto Parish public defender's office.

Court records and the legislative audit indicate that office is almost entirely funded through a $45 court cost assessed to people who plead guilty or are found guilty at trial, including traffic offenders.

In January, Evans and DeSoto public defender Steven Thomas entered a cooperative endeavor agreement under which the DA's office now pays the public defender $45 for each person entering traffic diversion.

Recently, 42nd Judicial District Court Judge Amy McCartney, sitting in DeSoto Parish, reviewed that agreement and declared it violates the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution.

She ruled that the agreement creates a conflict of interest because Evans' office is helping pay the legal bills for indigent defendants whom the district attorney's office prosecutes.

McCartney explained that the public defender is supposed to be an adversary of the district attorney and that the legally required independence in that relationship is called into question if the DA's office can control the public defender's funding.

Evans and Thomas appealed her ruling, arguing that district attorneys' offices in Louisiana are constitutionally allowed to operate diversion programs and direct where leftover funds are dispersed once operational costs are paid.

The American Civil Liberties Union's Louisiana chapter and the Southern Poverty Law Center recently filed an amicus brief with the court, asking the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal to uphold McCartney's ruling.

During oral arguments in the case Tuesday morning, the three-judge panel continued to question lawyers for both Evans and Thomas, grilling the attorneys on how the cooperative endeavor agreement did not at least create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Following the 40-minute oral argument, lawyers refused to comment, citing the pending nature of the case.

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