If you break the law in many small towns in Louisiana, the mayor could be your judge. The arrangement is ripe for conflict of interest.

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The city of Gretna, Louisiana, in the shadow of New Orleans, brings in more money through fines and related fees than some larger cities in the state. An investigation by WVUE-TV and ProPublica shows that much of that money comes from drivers who rack up multiple violations and hefty fines.

Defendants in Gretna’s mayor’s court, a unique justice system found only in Louisiana and Ohio, are charged with more violations — and face greater fines as a result — than those in seven other cities and towns we looked at. Many of those charges in Gretna are for nonmoving violations such as an expired license plate or vehicle inspection sticker.

And if a defendant misses a payment and doesn’t come to court to explain why, the court often adds a contempt charge, with an additional $150 fine. About half of Gretna’s cases over a three-year period included contempt charges.

A city representative said that officers charge people with violations only when they have probable cause, and that such fines deter motorists from breaking the law. A former New Orleans police chief, however, said cities can get people to follow the law without issuing lots of tickets.

How We Reported This Story

For this story we obtained via a public records request a dataset of all charges filed in Gretna’s mayor’s court from 2020 through 2022. Nearly 21,000 cases were included in the data, most of which consisted of traffic violations.

We obtained similar data for seven other municipalities in southeastern Louisiana. These included six towns with mayor’s courts — Harahan, Kenner, Covington, Ponchatoula, Grand Isle and Westwego — as well as the city of New Orleans, which has traffic and municipal courts. For municipalities with mayor’s courts, we obtained data for the same time period; for New Orleans we obtained data for 2022.

We confirmed with municipalities that the data accounted for all court costs and fees as of the date they were provided. Fine amounts for cases that were open when the data was provided may have changed since.

We calculated the average fines and fees for all cases in each town. Gretna had the highest average amount levied: $457 per case. We found this was 67% higher than the average of all the other municipalities’ average per case, which was $273. We also calculated the number of violations per case, not including contempt charges; again, Gretna was the highest, with 2.4 violations per case, compared with an average of 1.4 across the other municipalities.

These figures include all cases, both open and closed, as well as a relatively small number of cases involving nontraffic violations. Fines are often reduced when people go to court, so we also analyzed fines for open and closed cases separately, as well as traffic cases alone. Across all those analyses, Gretna’s assessments per case and the number of violations remained above average compared with other towns.

In addition, we studied the most common violations in Gretna, finding that a large number were nonmoving violations. Nearly half of all violations (not including contempt of court) were for violations of law related to driver’s licenses, vehicle registration or insurance or inspection stickers.

Contempt of court was charged in about half of the cases in Gretna, which was more than other towns with comparable data. A few municipalities were excluded from this comparison because they did not list contempt as a separate charge.

We used audits on file with the state to compare how much Gretna collected in fines and forfeitures to other municipalities. Over several months last year, we reviewed annual audits for all 301 municipalities and two combined city-parish governments required to file reports with the state. A small number of audits did not include a line item for fines and forfeitures. Gretna had the highest revenue from fines and forfeitures of any town with a mayor’s court, according to our review, and the third highest of any municipality.

There is no official government definition of fines and forfeitures in those audits, but the terms generally cover penalties for breaking the law and associated fees. In some places, they could include collections outside court, such as library fines and traffic camera tickets. Gretna’s fines and forfeitures include revenue from traffic cameras, which don’t go through mayor’s court. But the city’s revenue from mayor’s court alone in fiscal year 2022 exceeded most cities and towns’ overall collections in fines and forfeitures, including some larger cities.