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The Woman Who Spent Six Years Fighting a Traffic Stop

Getting caught in a speed trap in a small Louisiana town.

Next year, come summer, Edward Larvadain, Jr. will have been an attorney for 50 years. He’s had a memorable run, enough so that last year he was inducted into the Southern University Law Center Hall of Fame.

As a civil rights activist, he was arrested during a 1961 sit-in and served 31 days in jail. Five years later, when he began practicing, rural Louisiana had so few black lawyers that a brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice made note of him joining the bar. As a lawyer, he’s handled a variety of cases, including a decades-long fight to desegregate schools. And if you want memorable, there was the time he was quoted as telling a local judge, “You’re a motherfucking racist” — a quote from the judge’s account, which also had Larvadain saying: “You can’t help it that you’re a racist. Your daddy’s a racist. Your children will be racist. It’s in your blood.”

But for all that, Larvadain says no case in all his years as an attorney has drawn more comment than one that came down earlier this year — a case, centered in a small Louisiana town called Woodworth, involving four driving citations.

“Because a lot of people understand what Woodworth does,” Larvadain says.

The case shows how easily a traffic stop can lead to someone being jailed — a scenario that turned tragic one state west, with Sandra Bland in Texas. The case also exemplifies a suspicion that, at times, law enforcement’s motive is profit. Mother Jones, in a recent article titled “Police Shootings Won’t Stop Unless We Also Stop Shaking Down Black People,” suggested a term for this: “policiteering.”

Woodworth can be found in central Louisiana’s Rapides Parish, six miles south of Alexandria. The town’s website puts the population at 2,024. The 2010 Census says the town is 90 percent white. “A NEW place to call home,” Woodworth bills itself.

Click on Woodworth’s website and you’ll find descriptions of “quiet streets, low crime and friendly neighbors,” of “simple pleasures” and “peace of living,” of “camping, canoeing, horseback riding, hiking, fishing, scenic byways.” The homepage has five tabs. The one in the middle — between “Convention Facilities” and “Recreation & Nature” — reads, “Online Payment.” This link provides instructions for paying fines to the Woodworth Magistrate’s Court. “Please pay carefully,” the instructions say.

To many residents outside of Woodworth, it is that middle tab that defines the town. They associate Woodworth less with “scenic byways” than with financially hazardous roadways. They see Woodworth as a speed trap.

Drivers vent about Woodworth in online forums. A truck driver from Rapid City, S.D., wrote: “I have logged over 1 million miles. Nowhere in this country have I found a worst speed trap than in that stinking armpit of a town called Woodworth, LA.” The National Motorists Association sometimes lists the worst speed trap in each state, using public polling. On at least one occasion, Woodworth was Louisiana’s No. 1. An Alexandria newspaper once polled readers on the worst speed trap in central Louisiana. Woodworth was No. 1. A woman told the paper that she was pulled over by Woodworth police while in labor — and was kept for more than a half hour.

Concerns about Woodworth also find support in statistics and in the grumblings of Louisiana lawmakers. In 2007, the state’s Office of Legislative Auditor produced a report, titled “Excessive Fine Enforcement,” requested by lawmakers who wanted an analysis of towns reputed to be speed traps. The auditor crunched numbers for 304 municipalities in Louisiana to see how much of each town’s revenue came from fines and forfeitures.

In Woodworth, the percentage of the budget funded by traffic scofflaws came to a rather stunning 61 percent. (Even more stunning? Woodworth was No. 7 on the list. Baskin finished tops, collecting 87 percent of its revenue from traffic tickets. That northeastern Louisiana town had 188 people — and five police cars.)

“They don’t care who it is. They stop people to get money.”

The report, detailing fiscal years 2004 through 2006, showed that with each year, Woodworth collected more money. In 2005, the town wrote 5,858 tickets and collected $818,262.66; the next year, that total was 7,696 tickets and $1,017,418.58. Woodworth reported having five police officers — which would mean, in fiscal year 2006, each officer wrote an average of 1,539 tickets.

The report also described how some states had passed laws to restrict or eliminate speed traps. California barred police from using them. Arkansas said towns could be investigated for abusing police power if more than half their tickets were for drivers going 10 mph or less above the speed limit. Texas and Missouri placed restrictions on the percentage of municipal revenue that could come from fines — the Texas cap, 30 percent for towns with fewer than 5,000 people.

In 2008, the year after this report was issued, Louisiana’s legislature took up a bill to limit how much its towns could collect from speeding tickets. For places with 1,000 to 3,000 residents, the ceiling would be 20 percent. The bill’s sponsor said that while speed traps might enrich small towns, state tourism and commerce suffered: “This is not about public safety. … It’s about money, and lots and lots of it.” He had been pulled over himself, more than once. He was even ticketed the day before his bill came up for vote in committee, while driving to Baton Rouge.

Mayors and police chiefs opposing the bill packed the committee hearing, according to one newspaper report. Woodworth’s mayor, David Butler, II, told lawmakers that towns could be held liable if they went hands off; some attorney might argue that a client got hurt because “you’re allowing the motoring public to speed through.” By a 10-6 vote, the bill died in committee.

In 2014, a new bill was introduced, this one sponsored by a lawmaker who used to be a sheriff. He called it a “disgrace” for Louisiana to have “revenue-based law enforcement,” saying it was wrong to write “tickets to fund a town.” One newspaper account said the sponsor “particularly has a problem with Woodworth, which has annexed a sizable strip along Interstate 49 that's populated by nothing but pine trees.”

The bill called for any town that collected more than half its revenue from speeding tickets to put up a road sign, with blinking lights, telling drivers they were entering a speed trap. But one opponent of the measure said this would impose a “stigma.” This bill made it out of committee but by a vote of 52-47, died in the House.

Patricia Parker lived in Alexandria, central Louisiana’s largest town. (And where, according to that audit, traffic fines accounted for only 1 percent of the budget.) But to get to work — she was a cook at a Methodist conference center, at the end of a long private road — she needed to go through Woodworth.

On Jan. 4, 2009, Parker, then 30, was driving a 20-year-old Dodge pickup to work. Two co-workers, Rufus Smith and Gracie Jackson, were passengers. It was early, a little before 6 a.m., because they were on breakfast shift. All three were African American; each wore a black and white uniform.

What happened next is detailed in court records, in particular two opinions issued by the Louisiana Court of Appeal: After Parker got off the highway, a Woodworth police officer began following her, dash-cam running. Parker didn’t speed. She didn’t violate any traffic laws. Before turning on Methodist Parkway, the private road to work, she signaled. Still, after Parker turned, the officer hit his lights and pulled her over. The officer, David Godwin, later testified that he stopped the pickup “just to check and see” and to “find out what was going on.”

“The reason I stopped her is because the vehicle turned down Methodist Parkway about six in the morning and it was still dark. And the Methodist Parkway is some buildings back there. Also, at that time there was a deputy and his family that lived back there. So I stopped her to see what — what was going on and why they was going back there.”

Parker told him they were going to the center, to work. This satisfied the officer — his wife used to work there, and he knew people arrived early — but he didn’t wave her on. He asked for license, insurance, registration.

Parker provided all three, explaining that the truck belonged to her live-in boyfriend. When Godwin ran Parker’s license, the computer said it was suspended. Parker told him her license was valid — that she had paid a fine for some previous driving offense and could show him documents to prove it — but the officer said he had to go by the computer. He also said the registration card was expired. He issued four citations: driving under suspension, unlawful use of a driver’s license, no registration, no insurance. Parker produced a card showing the truck’s owner had insurance, but Godwin later said that, to his understanding, a driver without a valid license couldn’t get insurance.

The fines for the citations totaled $1,060.

Godwin also had the truck towed, by a private tow service, at a cost of $193.61.

Later, when Parker and her boyfriend — the truck’s owner — went to retrieve the pickup, “they were told a hold had been placed on the vehicle by the Town pending payment of the fines,” an appellate court subsequently wrote. The two consulted the state police, who said such a hold was improper. A state police officer called a town official to say so. Only then was the owner able to get his truck back.

As for the citations, Parker had to take those up with the mayor. That’s because in Woodworth, as in many small Louisiana towns, the mayor doubles as magistrate, a type of lay judge.

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Only two states have mayor’s courts, Ohio and Louisiana. And in Ohio they’ve come under steady attack. In one newspaper investigation, a former state senator called them “Boss Hogg, backwoods justice,” adding: “They’re like from the land that time forgot.” The U.S.Supreme Court and a federal appeals court have also leveled criticism, noting the conflict of having one person be both judge (levying fines, while tasked with being impartial) and mayor (responsible for the village’s financial needs).

In Louisiana, a “Mayor’s Court Handbook” calls the system a “somewhat enigmatic tool of justice.” Dating to 1898, it is a “legally constituted court with a serious responsibility to provide justice,” but also an informal body, with an opportunity for tailored justice because of the mayor’s “close acquaintanceship” with individuals and the community as a whole.

Woodworth reported having five police officers — which would mean each officer wrote an average of 1,539 tickets.

In Woodworth, Butler has been mayor since 1981. He did not respond to interview requests from The Marshall Project (nor did members of Woodworth’s police department). But in previous years, in interviews with newspaper reporters, Butler has bristled at Woodworth being labeled a “speed trap,” saying traffic enforcement isn’t about money, it’s about making the town safer. In 2007, he told The Town Talk, based in Alexandria: "At the end of the day, if they are violating the speed law and written a ticket for it, what's the problem? Whether it's 2,000 or 2 million collected in fines, it doesn't matter if they violate the law. The laws are enacted for people to obey." The year before, he told the same newspaper: “Those who come into our community and mess with Woodworth, the police will mess with you."

Butler has also been asked about the potential conflicts of mayor’s court. In 1999, he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he has created his own checks and balances, withdrawing from any case that he believes may pose a problem. “I am the mayor of the town and charged with the finances,” he said. “I don't want to ever create an impression that we (the court) are biased.” The story, headlined “Small-Town Court Justice is No Laughing Matter,” mentioned how once, faced with a leash-law violation, Butler placed on probation both the resident — and his dog.

Two appellate opinions describe Patricia Parker’s experience with the mayor’s court.

She first went before Butler on Jan. 22, 2009. “Each person got a turn to talk to the Mayor in the hallway,” is how an appeals court described it. She showed the mayor proof of insurance and registration on the truck, after which he dismissed the registration charge. She also told him her driver’s license had been valid, and asked for more time to prove it. He gave her until Feb. 18.

On Feb. 18, she provided the documentation. Her license had, indeed, been valid. But the mayor didn’t drop the two license-related charges. Instead, he “asked her how much money she had with her,” an appeals court wrote. “She responded she only had about $300. The Mayor informed her she could at least pay the unlawful use of a driver’s license charge that day.”

So she did, paying $215.

But despite what she paid, despite the documentation she showed, despite the registration count having earlier been dismissed, she was presented this same day with a bill of information, saying Woodworth was charging her with all four counts originally written up by the officer. She was given until March 18 to pay whatever money was still owed.

When March 18 arrived, Parker went to court “to try and get the other charges dropped,” an appeals court wrote. “[B]ut the Mayor was not there.”

In April, Parker sued Woodworth and Officer Godwin, saying she was a victim of an illegal police stop.

In June, the Woodworth court issued warrants for her arrest. The warrants said she now owed $1,580 — $810 for driving under suspension, plus $770 for “no insurance.”

In August, Parker was arrested at her home, in front of her children. She spent 25 days in jail.

“‘Those who come into our community and mess with Woodworth, the police will mess with you.’”

“Most lawyers don’t want to be bothered with cases this small,” Ed Larvadain, Jr. says.

Larvadain, who is now 74, worries that young lawyers are less concerned with right and wrong than with chasing dollars. Although Patricia Parker’s lawsuit against Woodworth offered small hope of a big payday, Larvadain agreed to represent her. “Because I saw wrong had taken place. And I knew someone had to take a stand.”

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Larvadain has a history of being blunt — although some might assign a different adjective. In the early 1990s a federal judge fined Larvadain $400 and suspended him for six months from practicing in the U.S. District Court for western Louisiana, saying Larvadain used “degrading language” in a brief to the court. Here’s what Larvadain wrote: “No fair minded individual, after considering all the facts in this case, can rule against plaintiff. I hastily point out, however, that one who is void of fundamental fairness can do so without any problem whatsoever.” The judge responded: “Like Icarus, Mr. Larvadain has flown too high.”

When it comes to Woodworth, Larvadain does not mince words. “You have to understand, Woodworth is different from everyplace else. All Woodworth cares about is generating money. They don’t care who it is. They stop people to get money.”

The lawsuit Parker filed in 2009 became a six-year court battle.

The town argued that when Parker paid that $215 fine, she essentially pleaded guilty, defeating any claim of false arrest. A trial court judge dismissed Parker’s suit — only to be reversed, with the appeals court saying payment does not equal admission.

The case returned to the lower court in Alexandria, where a trial was held, with a judge hearing the evidence. Following testimony from the mayor, the police officer and Parker, the judge found in Parker’s favor and ordered Woodworth to pay $30,000 in damages. He also ordered the town to reimburse Parker’s towing fee. And to reimburse the fine she paid. And to pay for court costs.

Woodworth elected to appeal, sending the case back up.

On March 4 of this year, the appellate opinion came down.

And in central Louisiana, the decision created a stir — less for the result, affirming the trial court, than for the language used to reach it.

When news of the opinion reached Larvadain, he was in Selma, Ala., marking the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. One of his sons called to say the court’s language was really something. “When I got back home I read it, and I had to agree,” Larvadain says. “It is some kind of decision.”

The judge who authored the 3-0 opinion was Sylvia Cooks, who has written of growing up in an era of separate water fountains and of being among the first African-American students to attend an integrated high school, where she heard the cheers of classmates when Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.

In its 34-page opinion, the court said that Godwin, the police officer, had no legal basis to pull Parker over.

“Officer Godwin’s testimony demonstrates that he genuinely believes he has a right to make these ‘check-em-out stops’ and that this is normal procedure for the police officers of the Town of Woodworth,” the court wrote. “Godwin’s testimony shows a complete lack of knowledge of the restraints imposed upon police conduct by the U.S. Constitution and the laws and Constitution of the State of Louisiana.”

The court quoted Larvadain saying, “These officers have been doing wrong so long, they have begun to believe that wrong is right,” then added: “We could not say it better.”

After Parker was pulled over, another vehicle turned onto the same private road — and was allowed to travel on. “Absent a traffic violation, so far as can be gleaned from this record, the only visible attribute of Parker and her passengers that might have distinguished them from other motorists turning on Methodist Parkway was they are all African Americans,” the court wrote. “There simply is no other distinguishing thing that can be surmised.”

The court rejected Woodworth’s argument that $30,000 was too much for damages. Calling Parker’s experience a “nightmare,” the court noted the indignities she suffered and how she quit her job at the Methodist center for fear of passing through Woodworth again. “Just her unlawful imprisonment for twenty five days renders the small sum awarded Parker anything but excessive,” the court wrote.

The court then ordered Woodworth to pay another $1,196, for the costs of the appeal.