New Orleans, La.—Today, New Orleans-area resident Marshall Sookram joined Hakeem Meade in a class action lawsuit against a judge on the New Orleans Criminal District Court for violating their right to neutral adjudication. Judge Paul A. Bonin previously ordered both men to pretrial ankle monitoring by ETOH Monitoring, LLC (ETOH). What the two men and many other New Orleans-area defendants did not know is that both of ETOH’s executives—one of whom is Judge Bonin’s former law partner—had together contributed over $9,000 to Judge Bonin’s judicial election campaigns and had even loaned money to the judge’s campaign.
The assessment of fees and deprivation of liberty involving a conflict of interest are violations of due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Now, Hakeem and Marshall are fighting back with the Institute for Justice (IJ) and the Law Office of William Most to ensure that ankle monitoring decisions are made without bias or the appearance of bias. This mission is especially vital now that COVID-19 has led many municipalities to monitor defendants with ankle monitors—and make the defendants pay for the monitoring service—instead of placing them in jail.
“Hakeem was placed on an ankle monitor with a company that has significant ties to the judge deciding his case. This is a direct conflict of interest and is unconstitutional,” IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer said. “Louisianans need to trust that their criminal justice system is free from bias or the appearance of bias. This lawsuit will help hold it accountable.”
The personal and financial relationship between Judge Bonin and ETOH was revealed in 2019 in a report by Court Watch NOLA (CWN), a judicial watchdog organization. Pretrial defendants, who were overwhelmingly indigent, had to pay $100 to ETOH for the installation of their monitoring devices and then $10 per day for monitoring. According to the same 2019 report, Judge Bonin also required his staff to “provide the defendant or the defendant’s family members with the contact information for ETOH.” Judge Bonin would sometimes even refuse to release defendants from jail until the family had arranged for ETOH to set up ankle monitoring. While Judge Bonin claims to have stopped the practice, the defendants he oversaw are still being pressured by ETOH to pay their remaining fees to the company.
“Fines and fees have become a mechanism for taking property and money from our society’s most vulnerable people and handing it to government agencies and private companies performing government functions,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “But the purpose of the criminal justice system is to pursue justice and protect the public, not generate revenue.”
These principles are especially vital because private companies have become enmeshed in the operation of state judicial systems. When private companies perform government functions, they must conform to constitutional standards. The lawsuit seeks to set boundaries on the proper use of private ankle-monitoring companies and other private companies which play a role in the judicial system.
“I’m part of this lawsuit to stop this abuse in the New Orleans court system and to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else,” said plaintiff Marshall Sookram.
Hakeem and Marshall are asking the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana to issue an order declaring that judicial decisions that benefit a private party with direct ties to a judge violate the Constitution. The class action lawsuit also seeks to require the company to disgorge the fees it collected from all defendants appearing before Judge Bonin and to cancel outstanding fees.
This case is the latest in IJ’s nationwide initiative to end abusive fines and fees and to ensure that the justice system operates for health and safety, not for profit. To vindicate these principles, IJ is currently litigating fines and fees cases in California (Indio and Norco), Georgia, and Missouri. IJ also launched a nationwide database surveying and grading state laws for their role in facilitating fines and fees abuses. And IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability litigates cases to hold government officials and those who act in concert with them accountable for violating peoples’ constitutional rights.