93 mph is Awfully Fast: Washington and St. Tammany Parishes, LA
COVINGTON, LA – JULY 26, 2018
Sitting in traffic court is, I’m sure, no one’s preferred summer morning activity. Nonetheless, I’ve found that when the stakes (and therefore the scrutiny) are lowest, the moments most revealing about our justice system can often occur. Here’s a tale from the traffic and misdemeanor docket in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana. (Washington and St. Tammany Parishes both form the 22nd Judicial District, and the court was sitting at its St. Tammany location on this particular day.)
The defendant came before the judge, Alan Zaunbrecher of the court’s Division H, to plead guilty to a traffic infraction – speeding 93 on a highway with a 65 mile-per-hour speed limit. The defendant had made a motion to enter his plea under what’s known as an “894.” This statute allows defendants to have the record of a misdemeanor conviction expunged after completion of the sentence. For traffic infractions, it can keep the ticket from staying on a driver’s record – helping with insurance, potentially employment, and the like. It’s not the most impactful motion a judge can rule on, but it certainly can help a defendant.
In this case, the defendant pleaded guilty and made a motion for 894 relief. The judge accepted the guilt plea. After a moment of thinking, he said, “I’m going to deny the 894; I can’t really do anything over 85. 93 is awfully fast.”
Now here’s the rub: only 15 minutes earlier, he had granted an 894 motion for a defendant, who had been going 91 miles per hour. While 91 is lower than 93, those speeds are both greater than the judge’s self-imposed 85 mile-per-hour bar. There’s of course one detail I’ve left out.
The defendant who did not get his 894 granted? A black man. The defendant who did? A young white woman, a college student.
This is one isolated incident, and a low-stakes one at that. Is it dispositive of racial bias on the judge’s part? Not necessarily. But it’s certainly a very instructive anecdote, given the almost identical nature of the cases and the judge stating his own standard, one that he’d broken minutes earlier. What happened next, though, was even more interesting.
One assistant district attorney – not the ADA handling traffic offenses, but another ADA in the courtroom, spoke up and asked the judge if he’d grant the 894 relief if the prosecutor amended the charge to say that he was only speeding 85 miles-per-hour instead of 93. In essence, if the prosecutor just changed what the defendant was pleading to, could the judge grant the relief? Sure, the judge said, I could do that. That ADA then changed the defendant’s charge to speeding 85 in a 65, and the judge granted the 894 motion. When the defendant thanked the judge, he said, “Don’t thank me, thank Mr. Sands [the ADA].”
This ADA was the only black ADA in that courtroom. In fact, he was the only member of the court staff who I saw that day who was not white. Court staff and prosecutors across the nation are overwhelmingly white. In the first seven courts I visited, I saw only one non-white prosecutor. Even in Washington County, Mississippi, where the population is almost three-quarters black, only 3 of the 8 lawyers in the courtroom were black. Of this nation's elected prosecutors, 95 percent are white.
Is one anecdote a compelling statistical argument? No. Did this case involve incarceration, long sentences, or unfair drug laws, like many of our nation’s discriminatory criminal justice practices do? No. But does it seem that having a black prosecutor in the court that day allowed for an incident of judicial bias to be recognized and rectified? It sure does. Is it a compelling vignette for why a diverse group of prosecutors, reflective of the communities they serve, is important? I certainly think so.