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Louisiana Town Must Pay Up for Absurd Ordeal

LAKE CHARLES, La. (CN) - A small Louisiana town where "check-em-out" police stops are de rigueur owes $30,000 to a black woman jailed for 25 days on bogus charges, an appeals court ruled.

The farce of Patricia Parker's ordeal with Woodworth law enforcement six years ago is recounted painstakingly in a March 4 opinion from Louisiana's 3rd Court of Appeals.

It began just before sunrise on Jan. 4, 2009, as Parker and two black co-workers were on their way to the Methodist Conference Center to work a morning shift.

In 2009, the small, central Louisiana town of Woodworth had a population of 1,456, and 90.6 percent of that population was white, according to .

By his own admission and dash-cam evidence, Woodworth police officer David Godwin had no cause to pull over the pickup truck Parker was driving.

The stop occurred on Methodist Parkway, a private roadway leading up to the conference center.

Godwin has said that he "wanted to see who she was" and "where she was going."

Though the truck, owned by Parker's live-in boyfriend, was properly insured and registered, Parker left the traffic stop with four citations, all of which have since proved improper.

During the stop, Godwin refused to consider any evidence that would contradict the report in Louisiana's computerized that Parker's driver's license had been suspended because of her failure to pay the necessary fine for a prior driving offense.

Indeed Parker had paid that fine in 2008; her current license was valid; and Louisiana had those records at the time of the stop.

Godwin cited Parker for driving under suspension, unlawful use of a driver's license, operating a vehicle not covered by insurance/security, and lacking a current registration.

He also had Parker's vehicle towed from the private roadway where he stopped it at a cost of $193.61, and Woodworth then sought to collect over $1,500 from Parker.

When Parker presented the mayor, who is the magistrate judge over such matters, with proof of insurance and current registration, he dismissed the charge of no registration, but still collected $215 from her for the unlawful use of a driver's license charge.

Parker also showed the mayor proof that her driver's license was not suspended at the time of the traffic stop but to no avail.

Even so, Woodworth then "filed a bill of information charging Parker with all four of the charges reflected in the original traffic citations," according to the ruling.

Parker sued Godwin and Woodworth that April, seeking damages stemming from the unlawful stop. Two months later, the town's Magistrate Court issued arrest warrants for Parker's failure to pay fines in connection with the traffic stop.

On Aug. 31, police arrested Parker at her home, in front of her minor children, and held her for 25 days in jail.

Parker says the ordeal forced her to quit her job of three years out of fear of passing through Woodworth again.

Though the judge presiding over Parker's civil suit granted the town and Godwin summary judgment in 2011, the appellate court revived her claims in 2012.

A bench trial then ended with an award of more than $30,000 in damages for Parker, and the appellate court affirmed last week that "Woodworth is unquestionably liable to Parker for the damages awarded by the trial court."

The 35-page opinion describes Parker's 2009 stop as "completely unlawful" and an infringement on Parker's rights against illegal search and seizure.

"Godwin's testimony demonstrates that he genuinely believes he has a right to make these 'check-em-out stops' and that this is normal procedure for the police officers of the town of Woodworth," the 35-page opinion says. "Godwin's testimony shows a complete lack of knowledge of the restraints imposed upon police conduct by the U.S. Constitution and the laws and Constitution of the state of Louisiana."

Though Woodworth had tried to topple the $30,000 judgment as excessive, the three-judge appellate panel found that the measure appropriate.

"Parker's imprisonment for twenty five days not only offends our notions of due process of law, equal access to our courts of justice, and every citizen's fundamental constitutional right to be free from unreasonable restraints on his or her liberty, it cannot be excused because this is the way 'business' is done in the Town of Woodworth," Judge Sylvia Cooks wrote for the court.

On remand, the trial court must specify exactly how much Woodworth also owes in court costs, the court said.

It calculated the cost of appeals, another bill for Woodworth, at $1,196.

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