NEW ORLEANS: Tulane Criminal Clinic and the ACLU of Louisiana today announced the favorable resolution of a lawsuit against New Orleans municipal court judges. The lawsuit, filed on March 6, 2007, challenged the "pay or stay" sentencing practice that had created a debtor's prison in New Orleans. Under the unconstitutional "pay or stay" rules a criminal defendant was forced to pay a fine, on the spot, on the day of sentence. Those who could not afford the fine, received prison time. Tulane's Criminal Clinic and the ACLU argued that the "pay or stay" practice violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution by creating a system in which the rich paid fines and the poor went to jail. Explained Professor Pamela R. Metzger, Director of the Tulane Criminal Clinic, "Alternative "pay or stay" sentences create an unconstitutional two-tiered justice system - one in which the rich pay fines and the poor serve time. 'Pay or stay' undermines a core American value: that justice is blind to the wealth of those who stand before the courts."
After the filing of the lawsuit, the parties worked together to resolve the plaintiffs' concerns. Based on those successful negotiations, plaintiffs have dismissed their lawsuit. The defendants have assured the plaintiffs that they will not impose alternative 'pay or stay' sentences and have agreed to continuing conversations between the parties regarding municipal court operations. Post-Katrina, the municipal court faces a number of challenges as it struggles to manage its large caseload in a temporary work space loaned to it by the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's Office.
"We understand that the municipal court is severely under-resourced, and that the judges are struggling to manage overwhelming caseloads with very little assistance. However, the Constitution must be respected. We are delighted to have successfully resolved this case, and to have the defendants' word that the unconstitutional practices have ceased," said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana.