Ballot Basics: So what exactly does the Lafayette city marshal do?

For decades, City Marshal Nickey Picard had a passion for tracking down drunk drivers. He kept a white board behind his desk where he would record the number of outstanding warrants for OWIs, working the phones from morning to night to scratch that number down. When he found fugitives in other cities, he’d pay for a transport service to bring them home. Some called it an extravagance. For Picard, it was justice. 

“It would keep him up at night,” says Phil Conrad, a longtime marshal’s office veteran who retired as chief deputy in 2020. 

Elected for six years at a time, a city marshal puts a stamp on the office. In practice, the position is not unlike a sheriff, except it’s (mostly) confined to city limits. The powers are substantial within those boundaries. 

On Dec. 5, city voters will determine the next city marshal, technically replacing the elected successor to Brian Pope, who left office a felon after abusing his power and allegedly pocketing money he shouldn’t have. Pope hasn’t run the office since 2018; an interim marshal, C. Michael Hill, was appointed to keep the office at its work. 

So what exactly is that work? Around half the readers we heard from say they don’t really know what the marshal does. That’s not surprising to Hill, who says marshals don’t have much of a public face, but have a big public function. 

Here are the basics. 

What does the marshal’s office do? 

The official answer: it executes the mandates of City Court. That’s another way of saying it keeps the peace of Lafayette City Court and enforces orders from its judges. You can break the deputy marshals’ job responsibilities down into three basic priorities: 

  • Securing Lafayette City Court, including its building and the people inside it 
  • Serving civil orders and writs like eviction notices, judgments and subpoenas 
  • Serving and executing warrants 

That’s not to say the office only does those three things. Deputy marshals, like sheriff’s deputies, can make traffic stops, arrests and conduct investigations. But their primary focus is the business of the court. 

To that end, they spend a lot of time tracking people down and making sure they show up in court, pay their fines and penalties, and abide by what City Court judges order. They often work in tandem with other law enforcement agencies to track down criminal offenders. And they serve subpoenas for civil cases, too. 

And that means even some of the most seemingly mundane tasks can be dangerous. “When a marshal shows up at a house, they are uninvited, whether it’s to serve a subpoena or whether it’s to serve and execute an arrest warrant,” says Conrad, contrasting the work with the typical disposition of a police department. “If the PD is called to an address, somebody called them. Nobody calls us.”

How is the office funded? 

While an independent elected official, the marshal’s office is funded primarily through city government. Lafayette’s office runs a $2 million budget, with salaries for its 24 employees — including deputies and administrators — commanding most of the expense. Around $500,000 in revenue comes from court fees and commissions on garnished wages, according to a 2019 audit of the office’s finances. 

What power does the marshal have? 

For the most part, the marshal’s job is pretty straightforward; it’s defined and directed by the work of City Court. In other words, a new marshal doesn’t really change what the office does, but how the office does it. 

Ideas from the candidates reflect that reality. Duson Police Chief Kip Judice wants to implement a text-message alert system for court dates. Marshals are responsible for making sure people show up to court when they’re told to. And if people miss court, it’s the marshal who tracks them down on warrants. In most cases, Hill says, people miss court because they forget. Court dates can be set three months after an infraction. A text-message alert system, in theory, would cut down on no-shows by reminding defendants about their dates. 

“Nobody wants to put people in jail who have forgotten to come to court to take care of a traffic ticket,” Hill says. “It serves no societal good, no moral good, no good.” 

Reggie Thomas, who will face off against Judice in the December runoff, has focused on fostering community trust, building on his background at the Lafayette Police Department, where as deputy police chief he spearheaded a community relations board. Marshals don’t generally do beat police work. But serving subpoenas, making arrests on warrants and handling evictions puts marshals’ deputies in the community in a very public way. Rebuilding trust is a big theme here, and of course one that cuts across all of American law enforcement in 2020. 

Why should I care who is the city marshal? 

The office has a lot of power and spends your money to wield it. Brian Pope showed how badly that power can be abused and the money wasted. Who inhabits the office defines how it runs, which can have a real impact on people’s lives. Another way of thinking about this job is to consider the tally of OWIs on Nickey Picard’s white board. It defined a priority for the office and how it uses the public’s resources. What tally would you want your next marshal to keep?