Judge sued over financial links to ankle-monitoring company

A judge in Louisiana is facing a class-action lawsuit by two pretrial defendants who charge he ordered them to wear and pay for ankle monitors from a company that contributed thousands of dollars to his election campaigns.

Judge Paul A. Bonin ordered plaintiffs Marshall Sookram and Hakeem Meade to use pretrial ankle monitoring by ETOH Monitoring and personally pay for it at costs of about $300 a month, said the Insitute for Justice, which is representing the men.

“What the two men and many other New Orleans-area defendants did not know is that both of ETOH’s executives – one of whom is Judge Bonin’s former law partner – had together contributed over $9,000 to Judge Bonin’s judicial election campaigns and had even loaned money to the judge’s campaign,” IJ said.

“The assessment of fees and deprivation of liberty involving a conflict of interest are violations of due process guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,” IJ contended.

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“Hakeem was placed on an ankle monitor with a company that has significant ties to the judge deciding his case. This is a direct conflict of interest and is unconstitutional,” IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer said. “Louisianans need to trust that their criminal justice system is free from bias or the appearance of bias. This lawsuit will help hold it accountable.”

The personal and financial connections between Bonin and ETOH were uncovered in 2019 in a report by Court Watch NOLA, a judicial watchdog group.

“Pretrial defendants, who were overwhelmingly indigent, had to pay $100 to ETOH for the installation of their monitoring devices and then $10 per day for monitoring. According to the same 2019 report, Judge Bonin also required his staff to ‘provide the defendant or the defendant’s family members with the contact information for ETOH,'” IJ said.

“Bonin would sometimes even refuse to release defendants from jail until the family had arranged for ETOH to set up ankle monitoring,” the legal team said

“Fines and fees have become a mechanism for taking property and money from our society’s most vulnerable people and handing it to government agencies and private companies performing government functions,” said IJ attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “But the purpose of the criminal justice system is to pursue justice and protect the public, not generate revenue.”

Plaintiff Marshall Sookram said: “I’m part of this lawsuit to stop this abuse in the New Orleans court system and to make sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

The complaint, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, requests an order finding that judicial decisions that benefit a private party with direct ties to a judge violate the Constitution.

See a video prepared by the Institute for Justice, which is working on behalf of plaintiffs Marshall Sookram and Hakeem Meade:

IJ explained: “In America, you may be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but that doesn’t stop the government from severely restricting your freedom while you’re being prosecuted for a crime. These restrictions, however, are supposed to be based only on individual circumstances and public safety. But in New Orleans, it appears that one judge used his power to give business to a company he has close ties to—and without disclosing this information to defendants. Now, that judge and the private company he steered business to are facing a federal class action lawsuit.”

IJ argued the 14th Amendment guarantees that no person can be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

“This means that judges have a duty to be objective—and to appear objective—in their administration of justice. A judge is prohibited from making decisions that benefit themselves or their office. The same is true regarding decisions that benefit a private company with which the judge has personal, professional, or political ties.”

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