Southwest Louisiana residents who have missed court dates, face overdue fines and have outstanding warrants are being offered a fresh start through Lake Charles City Court as part of an effort to “help them help themselves.”
“We’ve all been through a lot, our families have been through a lot with COVID, with the storms and then with the ice storm and this was a perfect opportunity to help people take care of their business that they couldn’t take care of before,” Judge Jamie Bice said.
Bice said newly elected Judge Ron Richard and Marshal Nathan Keller have been at the forefront of organizing the Fresh Start Amnesty Program since their first days in office.
“They’ve really been pushing for this because it helps people in the long run,” Bice said. “We recognize there have been some really tough times in Southwest Louisiana.”
The one-month program allows individuals to take care of outstanding court matters with no fear of arrest or prosecution. Warrants for failure to appear and failure to pay will be recalled. Warrant fees and other fines may be removed or reduced, with an option for payment plans. New court dates, where applicable, can also be set with no additional fees.
“Offering amnesty is one way we can help ease the financial burden for these individuals as our community works to recover from the challenges of the past year,” Richard said. “Another thing to remember is that if you have outstanding warrants there are issues if you’re trying to get housing, there are issues if you’re on probation and you’re finishing it and you may run into problems with getting a satisfactory termination because you have an outstanding warrant, and if you’re trying to get employment they’re going to run a background check and if anything like this pops up it could cost you a bunch of problems.”
Keller said, from a law enforcement side, he sees so many people who don’t have a valid driver’s license because of a ticket that wasn’t paid that resulted in a bench warrant and a suspended license.
“All of that stuff can balloon and before you know it, you can’t afford to pay all the other costs,” he said. “City court and the marshal’s office can be a place you’re not afraid to come to. This is your building and we want you to be able to come here and take care of your business and not be afraid of arrest. No arrests will be made during this period, even if you can’t pay the fine or fees. We’re going to provide you with another court date. This gives you a fresh start. We don’t want this to be a place where you’re intimidated before you even walk through the doors.”
Keller, who has also been displaced since Hurricane Laura swept through the area on Aug. 27, 2020, said he can relate to those feeling overwhelmed because their main focus is getting back into their homes.
“They may be in Houston or New Orleans right now because they can’t live in their homes and they may not be getting their mail and that’s why they’re missing court dates,” he said. “We understand that. We want to be Lake Charles strong and do what we can to help the community. It’s been a heck of a year so why not show a little compassion for the community that we serve?”
Individuals seeking amnesty must come in person to Lake Charles City Court, 118 W. Mill St., to participate. Payments can be made using cash, credit card or certified check. The program will be held Monday, April 19-Wednesday, May 19.
Richard said the program has the full support of Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, the City Council and the Calcasieu Parish District Attorney’s Office.
“We’re assuming the role of giving one more chance to take care of your business,” Bice said. “But when the one month is over, we’re not going to be as understanding. We can’t, we’re a court. We were elected and sworn to uphold the laws of Louisiana and we will do that. We are doing the best we can to notify people that the time to care of your business is now.”
Anyone with an outstanding bench warrant before Dec. 31, 2020, is eligible for the program.
“It doesn’t matter if you have one warrant or you have 10,” Richard said. “We have a tiered system set up so when you come in, you’ll talk to the staff downstairs if you have one warrant. There’s a certain arrangement if you have two or three. If it’s four to six or more, Judge Bice and I have to get involved to help resolve that but literally anyone can come in here and save money while cleaning up their business.”
Those who have warrants for DWI, synthetic marijuana or battery arrests can come in person to have their warrants recalled and a new court date set to start the process to adjudicate.
“You’re going to come in and be shown some love so you can take care of your business, but no one is forgetting that you did something wrong in the first place,” Richard said. “We’re just trying to be as friendly and as helpful as we can be to help you get a fresh start.”
For more information or to check if a warrant has been issued in your name, visit www.lccitycourt.org.