The village of Fenton has just 226 people, but it collected more money in a single year through fines and forfeitures — primarily traffic tickets — than almost any other municipality in Louisiana, ProPublica reports. Fenton is primarily run on the revenue of these fines, which amounted to $1.3 million last year. But the processing of the tickets is handled by what is known as a mayor’s court, which only exist in Louisiana and Ohio, and which is ripe for conflict of interest. In Fenton, the mayor runs the city using revenue from traffic tickets, but also acts as the judge, appoints the prosecutor and, if the driver asks for a trial, decides their guilt. The fairness of mayor’s courts has been challenged several times. One case resulted in a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that curtailed the power of mayors who take in a lot of money through their court.
Fenton village attorney Mike Holmes said the mayor presides over court in a “neutral, impartial manner” consistent with Louisiana law. But the village’s court records suggest something else about how it handles some tickets: Case summaries include curious notes from village employees and police officers. Some say not to “fix” tickets or reduce charges for drivers who had a “bad attitude.” Others suggest that the police chief and others have had a hand in dismissing charges, although Holmes said tickets are dismissed only at his direction. “The mayor who’s trying to raise money for the city is in charge of prosecuting these minor criminal offenses and getting fines brought back to the city,” said Joel Friedman, an emeritus professor at Tulane University in New Orleans who has taught procedural law for 46 years. “There’s no accountability,” he added. “They can do whatever they want.”