By Danielle Maddox Kinchen
The anxious crowd that gathered at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center early Saturday looked like it could have been gathered for a Black Friday holiday shopping sale.
But the deals being offered during an annual “amnesty day” in Baton Rouge were in many ways even sweeter — a chance to pay traffic tickets and clear bench warrants from the books without having to risk arrest.
Between 1,200 and 1,500 people showed up, starting as early as 6:30 a.m. to pay off their tickets or work with judges on-site to resolve their district and city court warrants, East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar C. Moore III and Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said. One man showed with 25 outstanding warrants on his record, others with 10 or 11 on theirs.
The large crowd overwhelmed the staff, which was unable to service even a quarter of those who showed up. But officials said the day was a success nonetheless and sparked ideas on how to work with citizens more efficiently in the future.
The amnesty day comes amid political jousting in parish government over how to tackle the approximately 160,000 outstanding warrants, about 60 percent of which are for traffic violations, including many repeat offenders.
“It was huge,” Moore and Marcelle said during separate interviews, using identical words to describe the turnout.
More than 100 employees from multiple government agencies, including staff from the Community Center, set up shop at the center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to meet citizens’ needs.
Judges set aside bench warrants for unresolved traffic violations, allowing defendants to pay off the original fines and considered waiving traffic fees and imposing alternative sentences, including community service or reduced payments, for those not able to pay off the citations.
Marcelle said she saw people from all walks of life and who came from all over the state, including people from Monroe, Alexandria and Denham Springs, as well as someone who had come from Dallas to get a warrant recalled.
“Many of these people were elderly,” Marcelle said. “They came with walkers. I was stunned by people coming in with oxygen tanks.”
Once a few people went through the process and were not arrested, Marcelle said, word spread and others showed up to take care of their warrants.
In addition to asking for alternatives to fines, Moore said many came prepared to pay their tickets.
“I was very impressed by the response of the public and willingness to resolve these issues,” Moore said.
Marcelle said she and others working that day learned at least one obstacle to paying warrants that the city could address.
“What I’m hearing from public there needs to be an evening court or a Saturday court,” Marcelle said. “What I suggest to city court staff that we do a Saturday court once a month, half a day, and then we would see an influx of people paying their fines and less people skipping out on court.”
Despite their best efforts, team members from the various agencies involved were only able to address 250 to 300 people, officials estimated.
“I’m disappointed we weren’t able to handle every person that came,” Moore said. “Moving four or five courtrooms to an off-site location was a challenge.”
Those who didn’t manage to get in the door received “rain checks” — lime green slips for district warrants and pink slips for city warrants — that allow citizens the same opportunity this coming week.
Citizens with outstanding warrants in district court can go to the traffic division office in District Court Monday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with their rain check to resolve outstanding tickets. Those with warrants in City Court, which was the case for the majority according to Moore, can go to city court any time during business hours during the upcoming week to do the same.
Moore said if people can’t make it during that time period, they should hold onto the slip and come as soon as possible, though.
In the meantime, “if they are pulled over and stopped for these traffic violations, for these only, they will not be arrested if they have their rain checks with them,” Moore said.
Moore said he looks forward to holding another amnesty day, this time hopefully at the courthouse to speed up the process.
Other agencies in attendance included district and city court judges’ offices, the Baton Rouge Prosecutor’s Office, 19th District and City Clerk of Court, the Mayor’s Office, Baton Rouge Public Defender’s Office, the Constable’s Office, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and the Baton Rouge Police Department.
“The biggest success for me was the good will that was shown by all our offices and how it was reciprocated by the people,” Moore said.
Follow Danielle Maddox Kinchen on Twitter, @Dani_Maddox4.
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