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SPLC complaint: Louisiana traffic court violates rights of Latinos

Latinos with limited English proficiency are being treated more harshly for traffic offenses than others appearing before a parish court in Louisiana, according to a federal civil rights complaint filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The complaint to the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) was filed on behalf of four people charged with traffic offenses in the First Parish Court of Jefferson Parish.

In addition to paying fines and court fees, they were forced to attend and pay for overpriced English classes as a requirement of probation. They were also charged, without their consent, for inadequate interpretation services in court.

“Latinos in Jefferson Parish are being discriminated against because of their national origin,” said Naomi Tsu, SPLC deputy legal director. “It’s unconstitutional that these individuals are not even hearing the charges against them before being slapped with extra fees and expensive, subpar classes simply because they cannot speak English fluently.”

When each of the four complainants came to the First Parish Court to pay traffic fines, they were forced by court officials to sign forms written only in English and assigned interpreters who failed to explain the charges against them and did not properly convey the complainants’ evidence to the judge.

Three complainants had to pay $130 each time they were assigned a court interpreter who provided shoddy interpretation services, in addition to courts costs and fines. The judge sentenced them to a series of 10 mandatory English classes taught at a local church, where the teacher charged them nearly $300, far above the market rate for English classes.

The complainants “observed that the classes were overpriced, operated on an overly punitive model that relied upon mocking and humiliating students, and did not usefully teach English,” the complaint says. Some of them lost wages because they had to miss work to attend the mandatory classes.

Latinos make up 14 percent of Jefferson Parish.

The DOJ has repeatedly told courts that they must inform defendants of all charges pending against them and make interpretation services available free of charge.

The SPLC complaint urges the DOJ to require the First Parish Court to provide fully translated documents and certified interpreters at no cost, and to stop sentencing non-English speakers to pay for and attend English classes.

Photo Credit: Flickr/kneoh