Criminal Justice

Suit challenges 'conviction fees' that help fund judge's salary

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Gavel and money

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A lawsuit filed on Tuesday claims that “conviction fees” are unconstitutional when they help fund the salary of the judge who imposes them.

The federal suit filed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, challenges the $15 fees imposed by Judge Marilyn Lambert of Ascension Parish, report the Advocate and the Associated Press and KATC. The fee is authorized by state law.

The conviction fees fund a little more than a third of a judicial expense account controlled by Lambert, the suit says. The account paid about $35,000 of Lambert’s $146,000 salary, the Advocate reports, citing information in the lawsuit. Another $21,000 from the fund paid for Lambert’s retirement, a car stipend and travel expenses.

“This arrangement creates impermissible incentives for the parish judge to find people guilty, because no conviction fee is extracted when she finds a defendant not guilty,” according to the suit.

Lambert is the only judge in the parish, and hears cases involving misdemeanors, traffic citations, juvenile matters and civil disputes with less than $20,000 in controversy

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans filed the suit on behalf of Richard Williams, who was cited for a barking dog. One of the defendants is Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley, who collects the fees and forwards them to the appropriate agencies.

He told the Advocate that Lambert has an impeccable reputation and it’s a “travesty” to infer she is motivated to find people guilty to get the fees. Lawyers at the center “owe her an apology,” Wiley said. “She ought to sue them.”

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