Nearly anyone who wants a job in St. Mary Parish (County) can be compelled to undergo fingerprinting, be photographed and submit to a background check for a government identification card, a federal judge ruled today.
U.S. District Court Judge W. Eugene Davis of Lafayette upheld the parish's worker registration law, which had been challenged in a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and several employers in the parish. The ACLU immediately appealed Davis' ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, an ACLU representative said today.
The St. Mary Parish police jury (county council) passed the law last summer to keep track of itinerants, who flow into the Gulf Coast area west of New Orleans seeking work in businesses related to the offshore oil industry. The jury acted after the murders of five teen-agers in the Morgan City area last spring; those crimes allegedly were committed by a drifter.
Although the law is aimed at nonresidents, it affects longtime residents of St. Mary Parish, too. In addition to requiring newcomers to register, the law forces everyone else in the parish to undergo the process when he or she changes jobs.
In his 16-page opinion, Davis said that the only people exempt from registration are people who keep their jobs, people who remain unemployed, self-employed workers and people who were living in St. Mary Parish when the law became effective Nov. 1 and are seeking their first jobs there.
The law, plaintiffs claimed in the suit, violated workers' rights to privacy, travel and equal protection of the law. Plaintiffs also contended that it violated employers' rights because it intimidated prospective workers and made them hard to get.
The judge today disagreed with those claims.
In the one-day trial of the suit last month in Lafayette, parish officials said that they needed the law to protect the parish from undesirables who drifted in looking for trouble as well as work.
Today, the judge agreed with them. In studying the case, he said, he balanced the community's right to protect itself against an individual's right to be left alone and found the law constitutional.
"The parish's" he said in the decision, "far outweigh that potential detriment which may be experienced by job applicants."
Furthermore, he said:
The potential for inconvenience and embarrassment to a job applicant is minimal because the information required to get a registration card is not sensitive.
The parish's desire to control crime is compelling.
The police jury was justified in believing registration would help control crime.
St. Mary Parish police jury president Billy Butler could not be reached for comment.
At a news conference called to react Davis' decision, Gretchen Hollander, ACLU executive director for the state, said:
"We do not accept the interpretation that the identification cards do not deprive workers of their civil liberties... The carrying of ID cards in order to work is a fact of life in such totalitarian regimes as South Africa and the Soviet Union, but it is not compatible with the American Constitution."
An identification card costs $10, and an applicant has to be photographed, fingerprinted and investigated. His picture and fingerprints are kept in Police and FBI records.
A worker faces no penalty for being unregistered, but an employer who hires an unregistered person who should be registered faces a fine of up to $100 or possible imprisonment.
Before the parish enacted its law last summer, Morgan City Police Chief Randy Ratcliff said itinerants constituted the city's biggest crime problem.
"We did a recent survey that showed that two-thirds of the people we arrest are working here temporarily," he said last May. Eighty-five percent of the transients we arrest have some kind of criminal record."
One itinerant was Robert Carl Hohenberger, 35, who wandered into Morgan City last spring and got a job as a machinist in an oil-related business.
He is believed to have killed five teen-agers, but before he could be arrested he fled to Tacoma, Wash., where he fatally shot himself May 31 as police closed in on him.
Two days later the Morgan City Council passed a law requiring transients to register before applying for work. A month later, the Louisiana legislature let seven parishes, including St. Mary, set up worker registration programs.