Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said that it was investigating the rural Louisiana town of Ville Platte, specifically the police department and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office. It is looking into allegations that the officers detain residents in their jails without proper cause.

This is the first time the DOJ has opened a “pattern or practice investigation” exclusively into the practice of improper detentions. Under this type of probe, the Justice Department looks for constitutional violations. Should it find any, the department has the power to sue law enforcement agencies to correct them.

It’s not yet clear whether a specific incident prompted the investigation. The DOJ refuses to comment on the origins of investigations targeting law enforcement due to possibility of retribution against those who complained.

In its announcement, the DOJ said it was looking into allegations that law enforcement in Ville Platte improperly keep people in jail under “investigative holds”, effectively detaining them without charges while officials investigate a crime.

A Monetary Gold Mine for the City

Civil-rights activists in Louisiana say the improper detentions are only a piece of a broader problem in Ville Platte, a city in which residents are cited for frivolous violations, excessively fined and put in jail if they cannot pay.

It’s a system that is similar to what Justice Department officials found in Ferguson, Mo., where the police department, at the urging of the city, regularly ticketed mostly African-American residents for violations like “manner of walking in roadway,” and then channeled that money into the city coffers. Those who we unable to pay were sent to jail.

The major difference is that in Ferguson, DOJ officials didn’t start out looking for what they ultimately found to be an entrenched, discriminatory system of fees and fines.

Ville Platte, a town of roughly 7,400, has a well-documented history of ticketing and jailing residents for improper reasons.

Arthur Sampson, a war veteran and a retired local NAACP leader, said that he had filed complaints with the Justice Department for years about the practice.

In 2011, he filed a lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union over a curfew the city had imposed. The law required pedestrians — but not drivers — to be indoors after 10 p.m. or face jail time or a $200 fine, a measure that disproportionately impacted low-income residents.

Under the curfew, people we not permitted to walk their dogs, go to the corner store or visit their friends at night, unless they had a car.

Police soon started making arrests, sweeping up “hundreds” of residents every night just for being outside. The mayor, Jennifer Vidrine, said she had imposed the curfew in response to a series of car break-ins, and that it would last for 60 days. The city council extended it three times.

The new fines from curfew violators created a “monetary windfall for the city,” the complaint said, “and thus, a tremendous incentive to continue the curfew.”

It’s readily apparent that justice is not being served in Ville Platte, the question is how deep the rot is and how severe the abuses of justice have been. Expect to hear more developments in this story over the coming months.

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