New Orleans Judge Steered People to Wear Ankle Monitors From Company Run by Campaign Donors, Lawsuit Says
Judge Paul Bonin improperly required people who appeared in his courtroom to purchase ankle monitors from a private company run by one of his former law partners, a lawsuit says.
Days before his 37th birthday in December 2016, Larry Coleman was arrested at a Louisiana State University lab in New Orleans where he works in biomedical research.
In an interview with The Appeal, Coleman said the arrest arose from an ongoing spat with his neighbors, who had taken issue with him using a parking spot since he first moved in. He was charged with assault with a firearm, damaging property, and disturbing the peace, but Coleman maintains his innocence. He says he was likely out of town in Baton Rouge when the incident his neighbors reported to police took place, and noted that neither a gun nor video was ever produced, despite rumors of the incident being recorded on camera.
At his first court appearance that month, Coleman thought the charges were going to be thrown out. Instead, Coleman’s bond was set at $6,000, which he immediately paid.
When Coleman headed back to work, he was embarrassed to explain why police had to escort him out of the lab, especially when he maintained he was innocent.
Coleman thought the legal process would be fairly simple. But in August 2017, nearly a year after Coleman’s first court appearance and despite regularly showing up for court, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Paul Bonin ordered Coleman to wear a GPS ankle monitor that would cost him $10 a day and mandated a daily curfew—8 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“I’m kind of like why do I need an ankle monitor when I live three miles from the courthouse?” he said. “I work three miles from the courthouse, and I’m here pleading my innocence.”
Coleman said his lawyer told him pursuing a trial would mean at least six more months with the ankle monitor. But if he pled down to disturbing the peace and paid a fine, everything would be over.
After four months of no social life and the continued embarrassment of having the monitor on at work, Coleman took that plea, and the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute the gun charge.
“I feel like the presence of the ankle monitor forced me to take the plea,” Coleman said.
Coleman’s experience is not unique, a new lawsuit contends. The Institute of Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, is suing Bonin, saying he required or “steered” people to wear monitors supplied by ETOH Monitoring, LLC, a private company run by one of Bonin’s former law partners, Leonard L. Levenson. Court documents say that Levenson, along with another ETOH lawyer, Christian W. Helmke, donated and loaned $9,650 to three of Bonin’s judicial election campaigns.
“You have to ask from the very beginning whether these folks would have been on ankle monitoring at all if there wasn’t an interest at play here outside of protecting the public,” Bill Maurer, managing attorney for the Institute of Justice, told The Appeal.
Coleman, who appeared multiple times in Bonin’s courtroom, noticed how common it was for the judge to order defendants to wear an ankle monitor.
“I mean, I was in court maybe five or six times during all this,” Coleman said in an interview, “and every time I was in there, everybody who came in there, he was hitting them with the ankle monitor. Everybody.”
Bonin did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.
The lawsuit requests ETOH return all monitoring fees with interest and cancel any outstanding fees owed for anyone whom Bonin put on ankle monitoring since Jan. 1, 2017, which includes Coleman. The lawsuit also asks that Bonin be required to disclose his “personal, financial, professional, and political relationships” with ETOH to people appearing before him in court and to offer alternative monitor providers.
Maurer is seeking class-action status but says the COVID-19 outbreak has significantly delayed his efforts to reach people.
The Institute of Justice filed the lawsuit on behalf of two named defendants, Hakeem Meade and Marshall Sookram. Like Coleman, both men bonded out at first, and, at seemingly arbitrary points in their cases, Bonin ordered they wear an ETOH ankle monitor, even though the men had been showing up to court.
In February 2016, Meade got into an argument with the owner of a local auto shop over how long repairs had been taking. The Times Picayune reported that Meade allegedly pulled a gun on Renaldo Henry, the shop owner. Henry shot Meade, who dropped his weapon, and during the chase out of the shop, Henry shot Meade’s girlfriend; she was pregnant with twins who did not survive the shooting.
Meade’s lawyer told local media at the time that his client never fired any shots.
While Meade was recovering from six gunshot wounds, including one to the head, he was charged with felony possession of a firearm and aggravated assault with a firearm. After turning himself in, Meade got out on bond. Although Meade had been showing up to court dates for over a year after the shooting, in August 2017, Bonin placed him on ankle monitoring without explanation, court documents say.
In October of that year, Meade asked Bonin to release him from the ankle monitor and the judge agreed, according to the lawsuit. By then, Meade had racked up about $600 in monitoring fees. He kept making payments out of fear of going back to jail, the lawsuit reads; an ETOH employee told Meade that Bonin received reports about how much money he owed.
“During at least one subsequent pretrial hearing, Judge Bonin reminded Hakeem that he still owed money to ETOH and that Hakeem’s failure to pay ETOH could violate his bondconditions,” the lawsuit reads. “Hakeem understood this as Judge Bonin explicitly conditioning Hakeem’s freedom from pretrial jailing on his ability to pay ETOH.”
Meade kept paying fees until he realized he’d likely be going to prison and started saving money for his family. He pleaded guilty in September 2018, Bonin sentenced him to five years the next month, and he served almost a year before being released in October 2019. However, Meade is still receiving collection notices for the approximately $322 he owes to ETOH.
Sookram got out on bond in September 2017 without ankle monitoring after being charged with simple criminal damage, possession of a weapon by a person with a felony conviction, and aggravated assault with a firearm.
A month later, Bonin ordered Sookram to wear an ETOH ankle monitor. He wore it for eight months, racking up over $1,000 in fees. ETOH told Bonin that Sookram could be released from monitoring in October 2018 on the condition that he paid his balance in full. Sookram, who worked in food delivery, got help from his family to meet the burden. Ultimately, Sookram pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace in February 2020, and Bonin sentenced him to four days probation with no monitoring.
Maurer also said the allegations raised in the lawsuit against Bonin are not about whether those who’ve gone before Bonin were innocent or guilty, but rather their entitlement to “a fair, objective decision maker.”
“Part of the importance of due process is that the system has to be free from bias but also the appearance of bias,” he said.
A 2018 report from Court Watch NOLA, a nonprofit criminal justice watchdog, found that Bonin was the only judge to have steered people to use ankle monitors from one specific company; he also ordered people wear monitors more than any of the five other judges who have received campaign money or loans from ankle monitoring companies, according to the report.
Monitoring fees and bail are among the burdensome financial pressures that often dictate how a case gets resolved, lawyers say. A pending federal lawsuit accuses New Orleans’ felony court judges of increasing or maintaining bail without inquiring about a defendant’s ability to pay or considering non-financial alternatives to bond. Some New Orleans judges, the lawsuit says, use “the threat of increased financial conditions of release to incentivize guilty pleas at arraignment.”
The suit also alleges a conflict of interest: .8 percent of bond payments are deposited into the Judicial Expense Fund, which courts can use for courtroom repairs and furnishings, pensions and retirement plans, and personnel salaries, among other expenses. Last year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling in a similar case, holding that the fund allows for “an unconstitutional temptation.”
“It is plain as day to see in any courthouse, particularly our courthouse, is that if you have the means to get out … then things are going to do better in your case than if you don’t,” Danny Engleberg, chief of trials for New Orleans Public Defenders, told The Appeal. “When someone is too poor to make a bond or too poor to pay a fee, it gives another unfair leverage point for one side over the other.”