Judicial neutrality is a constitutional cornerstone. When a person’s liberty or property is at stake, judicial orders must be free from even the appearance of bias or self-dealing. In Orleans Parish, Louisiana, Criminal District Court Judge Paul Bonin and private company ETOH Monitoring LLC have violated this fundamental tenet of due process. Judge Bonin required defendants to pay ETOH nearly $300 a month as a condition of avoiding jail or being released from ankle monitoring—all without disclosing his personal, professional, and political ties to ETOH’s owners.
Ankle monitoring is a form of government custody in which a GPS device attached to a person’s ankle records their location for compliance with curfew, geographic, and other restrictions. It is a significant deprivation of liberty—especially before trial, when people are presumed innocent. And nationwide, private companies charge people to be monitored.
In New Orleans, private companies charge defendants a $50–$100 installation fee plus up to $10 per day for their own surveillance. These fees impose heavy financial burdens on defendants, who are overwhelmingly indigent.
As the watchdog group Court Watch NOLA first reported, Judge Bonin instructed defendants to contact ETOH for ankle monitoring without disclosing that ETOH’s owners—including the judge’s former longtime law partner—made seven donations and a loan to his judicial election campaigns, totaling over $9,600. In addition, Judge Bonin acted as a kind of debt collector for ETOH, which sent Judge Bonin monthly payment reports highlighting individuals who “need attention” because they had fallen behind on fees.
Hakeem Meade and Marshall Sookram are two of the many defendants that Judge Bonin subjected to ankle monitoring. After more than a year without Hakeem missing any court dates, Judge Bonin ordered him to ETOH ankle monitoring without explanation. ETOH told Hakeem they would report his payment status to Judge Bonin, and paying ETOH’s fees was a pre-trial condition of Hakeem avoiding jail. To this day, ETOH sends Hakeem collection letters for hundreds of dollars he is unable to pay.
Judge Bonin ordered Marshall to ankle monitoring at his first pre-trial hearing. After over a year without any missed court dates, Judge Bonin’s chambers told ETOH that “Mr. Sookram will be able to have the monitor removed once his balance is paid in full.” In total, Marshall paid ETOH over $1,000.
As the justice system turns to ankle monitoring to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in crowded jails and prisons, it is crucial that judges make decisions affecting peoples’ liberty and property based solely on individual justice and public safety—not on the interests of private companies.
Hakeem and Marshall teamed up with IJ to file a federal class action lawsuit against Judge Bonin and ETOH. Shortly after IJ filed suit, Judge Bonin announced that he would retire from the bench. While Judge Bonin may be out of the case, IJ continues the suit against ETOH. We have already scored an early victory when a federal court affirmed that ETOH is subject to our due process claims because it performs a “public function.” That ruling will help our clients and others demonstrate that when private parties become part of the criminal justice system, they must act only in the interests of justice and not in the pursuit of financial reward.
Jaba Tsitsuashvili is an IJ attorney.