Last Modified: Monday, June 16, 2014 12:02 PM
A local attorney has asked a state district court judge to order the Calcasieu District Attorney’s Office to stop providing information to the Clerk of Court about where cases are to be allotted.
Cases in the 14th Judicial District Court are randomly allotted, but are also allotted according to court rules — if a defendant has a previous or pending case, the new charges follow the earlier charge.
Prosecutors said they provide information that the clerk does not have or is not readily available, at the clerk’s request.
Defense attorneys have cried foul and claim that gives the District Attorney’s Office an unfair advantage.
Attorney Wilford Carter, who recently stepped down after 21 years as judge, filed a motion requesting Judge Sharon Wilson to order the District Attorney’s Office to “cease and desist from directing the Clerk of Court of Calcasieu Parish from making manual assignment of criminal cases.”
The issue has already been before Wilson, who replaced Carter in April. Carter, who represents five of the defendants in a recent drug bust, “Operation 27,” said the defendants should remain in Wilson’s Division F, following the April 29 arrest of Norvell Harris. Harris, one of two main co-defendants, had previous cases in Division F.
Prosecutors argued that if the cases were transferred, the co-defendants — nearly 40 people have been arrested — should follow Tyrone Thomas, who has previous matters in Judge Kent Savoie’s court, because he was the first person arrested in connection with the drug sting.
The April 21 arrest did not have the same complaint number as the other “Operation 27” defendants. Thomas was arrested after leaving the home of Harris, according to a motion filed by the District Attorney’s Office.
“Detectives believed and later confirmed that T. Thomas had met with N. Harris to purchase cocaine,” the motion reads. Thomas’ arrest was out of the “same nucleus of operative facts” as “Operation 27,” it reads.
Defense attorneys argued that the co-defendants should follow Harris, who was arrested April 29, along with Hayward LeCompte and Hollie Harris, on the complaint number shared by most of the defendants.
Wilson ruled in May that the majority of the defendants are to stay in her court. Carter also asked her, at the ruling, to order the District Attorney’s Office, to stop giving information about allotments to the Clerk of Court. Wilson issued an advisory ruling against the practice, but would not make a ruling because that was not the nature of the motion filed at the time.
Carter filed the motion to cease and desist on June 6.
“This action by the District Attorney’s office has the appearance of impropriety and gives the district attorney an advantage in the assignment of cases that the defense does not have and has the effect further of violating the… defendants equal protection and due process law,” Carter wrote in his motion.
District Attorney John DeRosier said his office provides the information at the request of the clerk’s office, because the information is at the district attorney’s “fingertips.”
“We simply give the information to the clerk of pendings and priors, the clerk allots these cases,” DeRosier said. “That is what happens, Mr. Carter apparently does not understand that.
“The purpose of it is to make sure cases are allotted to the correct division. We don’t care what division to which a case is allotted. I don’t care what judge it goes to. We just need to make sure it gets allotted to the right division so we don’t get ready to go to trial a year down the road and a defense lawyer files a motion to try and put the case off by saying ‘you’re in the wrong division.’ That has happened many times and we don’t want that. That’s a tactic.”
Finding the information without the help of the District Attorney’s Office would be “burdensome,” Kay Miller, supervisor of the minute clerks, said, “because we don’t have all the information available to find out if there’s a prior or a pending and to find out if it’s an open file or a closed file.”
Miller does not believe the information creates an appearance of impropriety, she said.
“I think it will come out in the wash,” Miller said. “If we did it wrong, anybody can figure it out — the state or defense or judge. All they have to do is look up and see if there are priors or no priors and tell us to re-allot. We get re-allotments all the time. But we do not re-allot because the DA tells us to, we only re-allot by court order.”
“We just want to do what everybody wants us to do. We don’t take issue with the allotment. We’re just trying to follow the local court rules the best we can. We’re not lawyers and I do have a concern over if the clerk has to do the research, if it’s making us act like lawyers and figure out a legal situation.”
A former Clerk of Court employee testified during the May 15 hearing that she followed the instruction of the District Attorney’s Office, even if she believed the information was incorrect. She no longer is employed by Clerk of Court, having left of her own volition, Miller said. The woman now works at Carter’s law firm. When reached by phone at his office, she did not comment further.
“I took issue with (her testimony), because that’s not what I believe I told her,” Miller said.
Miller said she told the employee that if they did not know the information the clerk’s office had to be a “fact,” to follow what the District Attorney’s Office provided. If mistakes were found in the information from the District Attorney’s Office, the clerk’s office went against that information, Miller said.
DeRosier said he has been pushing for allotment by date of offense — defendants would be placed in the division of the judge who is on duty when the offense occurs.
Carter has said in the past that he would also like to see a change to that method of allotment.
A side benefit is that it would allow the District Attorney’s Office to know which division the case will be in so that the assistant district attorney from that division may visit crime scenes of homicides, DeRosier said.