Settlements resolve claims hundreds were illegally arrested
BATON ROUGE, La. – A pair of settlement agreements has resolved class-action claims that law enforcement officers in a rural Louisiana community used illegal "investigative holds" to arrest and secretly jail hundreds of people for questioning.
A court filing on Wednesday said all of the federal lawsuit's claims against Evangeline Parish Sheriff Eddie Soileau and his office have been settled. A separate agreement last week resolved the claims against the city of Ville Platte and its police chief. Terms weren't disclosed.
The lawsuit's claims mirrored a 2016 report by the U.S. Justice Department, which said unconstitutional arrests were a routine part of criminal investigations in Evangeline Parish for more than two decades.
The department's report said people often were strip-searched, held in cells without beds, toilets or showers and detained for at least three days — sometimes much longer — without getting a chance to talk to loved ones or contest their arrests. Detectives told federal investigators they used these investigative holds when they didn't have sufficient grounds for an arrest but had a "hunch" or "feeling" that somebody may be involved in criminal activity.
The class action over these holds hit a snag last year, when a judge dismissed three plaintiffs' claims because they were freed from jail more than a year before their lawyers sued. The judge rejected arguments by plaintiffs' lawyers that a one-year statute of limitations shouldn't apply in this case because people were told to keep silent.
New York-based plaintiffs' attorney Daniel Rehns said in an email Thursday that he can't comment on the settlements. Soileau and Ville Platte Police Chief Neal Lartigue didn't immediately respond to messages.
In his orders dismissing the claims, U.S. District Judge Donald Walter said he can reopen the case if the settlement isn't "consummated" within 90 days.
The Justice Department, which began investigating in April 2015, counted a "staggering" number of investigative holds for such a sparsely populated community. Ville Platte police officers used the practice more than 700 times between 2012 and 2014; the sheriff's office made more than 200 such arrests over the same period.
Evangeline Parish, approximately 80 miles west of Baton Rouge, has a population of roughly 34,000 residents. Ville Platte has approximately 7,300 residents, with blacks accounting for 64 percent of the city's population.
Plaintiffs' lawyers said the total number of arrests for investigative holds is likely underreported because the agencies use a "rudimentary" system for keeping arrest records.
"In fact, both agencies privately acknowledged to the (Justice Department) that they used the practice of investigative holds for as long as anyone at either agency can remember," their suit said.
In its report, the Justice Department said the police department and sheriff's office admitted that the holds are unconstitutional and took "laudable steps to begin eliminating their use."