NEW ORLEANS - The ACLU, on behalf of 19 Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans, won a major reduction in unreasonable and excessive escort fees charged by the New Orleans Police Department to second line parades. Federal Judge Kurt Engelhardt accepted a negotiated agreement with the City of New Orleans to reduce the fees from $3,790 to $1,985. Also, it eliminates the $10,000 bonding requirement.
"The free speech clause of the First Amendment has helped preserve a unique cultural and historical tradition in New Orleans," said Joe Cook, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana. "Without the ACLU's help to fight city hall in cases like this, people of modest means, unfortunately, cannot afford to exercise their right to access the courts and seek justice."
In November of 2006, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of the New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force and its 19 individual second line club members. It challenged the legality of the city ordinances and the state statute, which allows the NOPD to assess fees for the clubs to parade. Under the city ordinance, Police Chief Riley has virtually unfettered discretion to set the fees for a parading group. He had used this power to increase the charge on Second Line Clubs from $1,200 in 2005 to $3790 in 2006, an amount far in excess of what most groups can afford to pay. In one case, the N.O.P.D. tried to charge a group called Pigeontown Steppers $7,500 before the ACLU filed suit to get the fees down to $2,400.
"This case represents a major victory for our clients. It is regrettable that the City could have avoided litigation time and the expense to all parties by responding in a reasonable manner to our letter in May of last year," said Katie Schwartzmann, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Louisiana. "The escort fees went up after violence occurred in the crowd around some Second Line events, but imposing fees because of the behavior of a audience over which the clubs have no control is not allowed under the constitution."
"The original fee was not only unconstitutional, it violated the City's own laws," said Carol Kolinchak, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Louisiana. "The local ordinance clearly says that the City can only charge parade participants for 10 officers, and yet the prior fee of $3790 assessed upon our clients went well beyond that amount."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, founded in 1956, protects fundamental rights embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.