NEW ORLEANS (CN) - A court on the outskirts of New Orleans discriminates against non-English speaking Latinos by making them pay for interpreters and attend high priced, poor quality English classes as a condition of probation, a legal rights advocacy group claims.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday on behalf
of four people with limited English speaking abilities who had been charged with minor traffic offenses and were order to appear in the 1st Parish Court of Jefferson Parish, La.
The four said the interpreters they received rushed them through proceedings and did not adequately explain their cases.
In some instance, the individuals said the judge and interpreter spent so little time explaining the charges they ended up pleading guilty and paying fines to resolve offenses they otherwise would have disputed.
Omar Roman-Valesquez, 31, said he appeared three separate times in court on charges of failing to yield, driving without a drivers' license and a charge he believed to be erroneous driving with an expired brake tag.
He said the interpreter provided to him rushed through the charges, otherwise he would have disputed that his tag was expired.
When Valezquez arrived a fourth time to court to pay his fines, he found he had been charged $390 in English interpretation fees.
He was also charged an additional $45 in probation fees and told he must attend English classes as a condition of the probation.
The English class he and the other three people at the heart of the case were forced to attend did "not usefully teach English" and was very expensive, according to the complaint.
"The court's English class costs approximately $300 for ten weeks, while the local Catholic Charities charges approximately $25 for a semester of English classes," the complaint says.
A call to the court from Courthouse News seeking comment was not returned.
The complaint also raises questions of conflicts of interest.
German Noe George, 33, another of the four discussed in the complaint, pleaded guilty to various traffic charges, and as a condition of probation, enrolled in an English class taught by a woman who was also employed through the court as an interpreter.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said that would pose a conflict because the woman could potentially profit from the conviction of defendants she is supposed to help.
The complaint urged the Department of Justice to inform defendants of all charges pending against them and make interpretation services available free of charge. Federal money is sent to courts, such as the 1st Parish Court, for such services, the complaint said.
Latinos make up about 14 percent of the population in Jefferson Parish, the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a news release that accompanied the complaint.