BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney Mary Roper, Assistant Parish Attorney Tedrick Knightshead and now retired Assistant Parish Attorney James Hilburn were ordered into federal court Wednesday by Judge Brian Jackson to provide an answer as to why the parish attorney's office missed filing deadlines.
This case stems back to Oct. 2012 when Baton Rouge Police Department officers arrested Ernest Taylor for having guns in his parked car at a bar. BRPD cited Baton Rouge City Ordinance 13:95.3, which says a person is not allowed to have a gun "in any premises where alcoholic beverages are sold and/or consumed." The ordinance includes "the parking lot."
The ordinance has come under scrutiny because it contradicts a state law passed in 2008. The Louisiana law states, "a person who lawfully possesses a firearm may transport or store such firearm in a locked, privately-owned motor vehicle in any parking lot, parking garage, or other designated parking area.
It was this conflict of laws that led Taylor to hire an attorney, Joe Donahue. Donahue filed suit against the city for the "outdated" and "unconstitutional" ordinance saying his client had wrongfully been arrested.
The parish attorney's office is representing the city in the civil suit, but Donahue said the city lawyers did not file their motions per the required deadlines, which is why they were called to federal court Wednesday, to face potential federal sanctions and discipline.
When the case was filed, Hilburn was the lead attorney assigned to represent the city. In response to the filed suit, Hilburn should have filed the city's answer no later than Nov. 8, 2013. That deadline, however, was missed, not by days, but by months.
When leaving federal court Wednesday, Hilburn walked in the opposite direction from our camera and refused to answer any questions. But in court, he told Judge Jackson that he had been working on the case because he had been in conversations with Donahue over resolving the case outside of court. Donahue contradicted that saying there were no conversations about resolving the case outside of court.
Around the same time the city's response should have been filed, Hilburn decided to retire leaving all of his cases to be divided among the other attorneys within the parish attorney's office. This specific case was assigned to Knightshead.
Knightshead, however said he was never informed that he was to be the lead on the case until he was notified by letter about an approaching deadline in April 2014.
The city's response was finally filed on April 17, 2014. Prior to that in March, Donahue called Knightshead twice trying to touch base with the attorney on the case, but Knightshead never returned the calls from March 25th & 27th. Knightshead apologized in open court on Wednesday saying had he returned Donahue's two calls, none of this would have happened.
"It's unfortunate. It appears irrespective of everything else that occurred. If I would have just called him back, I would have gotten this information and could have fixed all this and nobody would be here," said Knightshead.
Mary Roper, although she was not defending the city in the case, was ordered to be at court because she is the parish attorney and over Knightshead. Citing Knightshead and Roper's impeccable reputations as lawyers, Judge Jackson refused to issue any sanctions or discipline against them asking this never happen again.
Judge Jackson added that having been a lawyer himself for 25 years, he understands attorneys accidentally missing deadlines, but the parish attorney's office cannot and should not let this happen.
Another factor that played into the judge's decision was that he found it was rare for problems to come out of the parish attorney's office.
"I'm happy. Obviously you come in and there's a rule of contempt. That's the first time that's ever happened to me, and I hope the last so I'm happy that at least he acknowledged my reputation did weigh in as a factor," said Knightshead."I think the judge made the right call on this. I think after he heard all of the facts and he listened to what we had to say as to what happened in this case, it was appropriate for no sanctions to be issued. I don't think anyone did anything inappropriate," said Roper.
"I'm not upset with my staff. I understand things happen. I certainly, as a lawyer, strive to handle things and try to make sure I don't miss deadlines, but certainly we're all human and it does happen."
Donahue said he was happy the issue was resolved and that they could now concentrate on Taylor's civil suit. The East Baton Rouge Metro Council will have to decide whether to keep the controversial ordinance on the books. That debate will unfold on Aug. 13th at the council's next scheduled meeting.