NEW ORLEANS -- An Eyewitness News investigation has found potential traffic code violations on several public cars driven by New Orleans officials. And these officials are the very people responsible for holding motorists to task for the very same violations – the judges of traffic court.
For several years, the five taxpayer-financed cars assigned to the judges and clerk of traffic courts have been outfitted with blue emergency dashboard lights.
New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said these city officials should remove the lights immediately.
“It’s wrong. It’s wrong for those lights to be in that vehicle unless there’s a post-certified police officer to operate it,” Quatrevaux said.
In fact, the state law governing the use of blue lights, R.S. 32-327, is very specific about who can drive with the emergency device: “No person shall possess such an emergency light except peace officers, firefighters, public utility, and emergency personnel.”
When we asked Chief Traffic Court Judge Robert Jones III about his need for a blue dashboard light, his said he had none.
“I don’t respond to any emergencies. I said I got the light after Katrina only to allow access back into the city,” Jones said. “I think I’ve used it only twice in my lifetime, other than Katrina.”
Quatrevaux was unimpressed with Jones’ response.
“Katrina was seven years ago. Katrina is no longer an excuse for anything. If that’s an illegal device on his car, we need to understand how it got there, and why it’s still there.”
A close inspection of Judge Jones’ city-owned Mercury Grand Marquis LS showed that it also was outfitted with another device that poses a potential traffic violation. His license plate obscured by a plastic cover that reflects flash cameras, including the dozens of traffic cameras used to collect millions of dollars from tickets in New Orleans.
Driving with an illegible plate is a violation of both city and state law.
The city ordinance, 154-307, states that “No vehicle shall be driven on the streets of this city with any vehicle license plate which is mutilated, defaced, damaged, or obscured in such a manner as to make the letters and numerals thereon illegible."
The state violation, 47:507, states that all license plates must be “clearly visible, and be maintained free from foreign materials and in a condition to be clearly legible.”
Jones said the car was given to him by the city with the plastic cover and he wasn’t aware of it.
“I was given the car like that. I didn’t put the plate on it. That was from the city like that,” Jones said.
When we showed him photographs illustrating how his plate becomes invisible in the glare of a camera flash, he responded, “I didn’t know about that.”
But when we showed ordinary drivers the photographs of Jones’ license plate, they were quick to recognize the reflective cover as a way to defeat traffic cameras.
“Well that’s disturbing,” Melody Johnson said. “So he can’t get a ticket but other people can. That’s not fair.”
“Of all people,” said Patrick Brumfield. “I think that’s kind of two-faced for him to uphold the law, but he’s going to bend it himself.”
Terrell Knott commented, “Wow. Wow. I got to say wow, I don’t believe that.”
Records show that New Orleans traffic court has handled more than 6,000 license plate violations so far this year, with most tickets going to motorist with missing plates. Only a tiny percentage of tickets stem from obscured plates, but state police say the number of those tickets is growing fast.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the fact that traffic court judges drive city take-home cars already poses a policy question, even without potential violations.
“It’s outrageous and unacceptable conduct for anyone, particularly a judge in traffic court,” Goyeneche said. “The height of hypocrisy. Deplorable conduct for a court that’s been under intense scrutiny.”
Judicial take-home cars have already come under scrutiny from the New Orleans Office of Inspector General. When we showed Quatrevaux Judge Jones’ license plate, he vowed to launch an inquiry.
“He is the chief law enforcement officer for that statute in Orleans Parish,” Quatrevaux said. “I’ll tell you this. We will certainly have a full understanding of the circumstances and we will report it.”
When we checked back with Jones following our initial inquiries, his blue light and license plate cover had been removed.
Not only that, he wrote a note to the other three traffic court judges and chief clerk asking them to remove their blue lights.
“We received a visit from the inspector general’s office and they showed us the state law,” Jones said. “We want to do the right thing, so I asked all the judges to remove their emergency lights.”
The city fine for an obscured license plate is $142. The fine for the same violation under state law is $212.
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