Police Jury to Call Election, Make Appointment for District 3

02/19/2020

A special called meeting of the Lincoln Parish Police Jury (LPPJ) has been scheduled for tomorrow (Thursday, February 20) at 5:30 PM, third floor, Lincoln Parish Court House.

On the agenda is the appointment of a juror for District Three. Presumably, Marvin Franks will be appointed.

However, it will be only for less than a year, as the jury also will be calling a special election to fill the remainder of the term, which ends 12/31/2023.

Also, the jury will consider action to interview applicants for Lincoln Parish Registrar of Voters.

Here is the agenda.

Barmore Resigns District 4 School Board Seat

02/18/2020

District Four Lincoln Parish School Board Member Mike Barmore has resigned his seat, effective March 1, according to a memo received from the district office this morning.

See here the memo.

A special called meeting of the board has been scheduled for Thursday, February 20, 10:00 AM, at the Central Office, 410 South Farmerville Street, to schedule a special election, and to appoint a temporary replacement until that election.

See here the agenda.

District Superintendent Mike Milstead has recommended that retired Testing and Accounting Coordinator Donna Doss be appointed to the seat. He is also recommending that the new election be scheduled for Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Qualifying for the position would be July 15, 16, and 17, 2020.

Testimony Begins in Drone Trial

02/13/2020

Testimony from witnesses began yesterday afternoon in the “Drone Trial” of a Lincoln Parish man accused of criminal trespass for flying an unmanned aerial drone over neighbor’s property without permission. The bench trial is being held in Third Judicial District Court in Ruston.

Division C Judge Bruce Hampton first had to rule on three motions filed earlier in the day.

A motion by defense attorney Jordan Bird asking the court to allow expert testimony via skype was denied by Hampton. The ruling was likely damaging to defendant James Benson’s case, as case law for drones is a relatively new field.

Bird argued that the expert lived in Michigan, and they couldn’t afford the expense of flying the witness to Louisiana, and there are no similar experts in the local region. He added that the judge had discretion to allow the unconventional method of testimony, he thought, as the defendant was entitled to have an expert witness on his behalf.

Prosecutor Michelle Thompson countered that there was no statutory authority or court precedent that would allow that method of testimony. Hampton agreed.

Another motion, this one by Thompson, that new evidence of “crimes or other acts” be allowed at trial also went against the defendant.

In August, 2017, it was alleged, a drone was flown over the then under construction home of Erin and Matt Henderson, in the Spur/Rock Shop Road area northwest of Vienna.

Erin testified that the drone was about at tree-top level, hovered and that several other people who were working on the house saw it.

She said that within the next few days, at a chance encounter at an area convenience store, she overheard Benson, who they knew, discussing drone flying with another customer standing in the checkout line. She asked if the one she had seen over her house belonged to him, to which he gave a non-committal answer.

Erin then testified, “If Matt sees it, he’ll shoot it down.”

Erin said she then phoned her husband Matt and told him of the conversation. Immediately afterward, she said, Benson called her husband and they had a conversation about the issue.

On cross-examination, defense attorney bird asked Erin to describe the drone and the height that it flew. He also asked if Benson ever directly admitted that it was his craft, to which she replied, “He didn’t deny it.”

Next up, Matt Henderson testified to the same observations as his wife concerning the drone overflight of his property, and recounted his conversations with Benson. He said he also met with Benson.

At this point, it was revealed that Benson is a local builder/contractor and cabinet maker. Apparently, he has bid on several home construction jobs in the area and has done work on some of them.

Matt said that he and Benson discussed the ongoing construction at his home, but that Benson did no work on it.

Matt testified that Benson never explicitly admitted the drone flight, but that he took it to be his equipment since he promised “not to do it again.”

At this point Benson took the stand, and while not admitting that particular overflight of the Henderson property, he said that it was likely that he had overflown it at one time or another.

He also denied any low level surveillance, as it the drone would likely encounter trees, powerlines, and other obstacles during flight. He explained that a drone camera can only look in one direction and cannot “see” to the side, or up and down. The only way to fly at low levels with obstructions nearby is to stay within line-of-sight of the aircraft, he said. Flying at low levels with only the drone camera as guidance is not safe to do, Benson said.

He always operates the equipment at elevations near 400′, he claimed, as that is the upper flight level that the Federal Aviation Administration has placed on drones.

In arguing against admitting this “other act” as evidence, Bird noted that there was no arrest or conviction regarding the alleged incident, and that no police report was ever filed.

Hampton ruled that the testimony would be allowed at trial, because it might affect the overall weight of the evidence.

The third motion, a motion in limine by Thompson to exclude computer flight logs of the drone flights, was denied by Hampton.

Thompson argued that the logs hadn’t been authenticated, and might be flawed. Bird noted that the prosecution could have subpoenaed the data prior to the trial but never did so.

Hampton ruled that the prosecution would have ample time at trial to attack the accuracy of the evidence.

With the motions ruled upon, at about 4:15 PM, the state called its first witness, neighbor Regina Johnson.

She testified, in rather dramatic fashion, of a February, 2018 drone overflight of her recently occupied home in the neighborhood. She said the aircraft came down to second story roof level of home and hovered.

“Who’s watching me?” she thought at the time.

Several photos of the home and property were introduced as exhibits, with notations as to where on the property she was standing when the alleged overflight occurred.

Several days later, she said, another overflight occurred at tree-top level, and she noted that the craft headed into the direction of Benson’s home.

Johnson said she contacted Matt Henderson, who is a Lincoln Parish Sheriff’s Office (LPSO) deputy and told him of the incidents.

Thompson led Johnson through several pages of a text message group chat among the neighbors that included Benson.

On cross-examination, Bird asked Johnson about the relationship between Benson and her family, and she said they weren’t particularly cordial.

Benson had visited with the Johnson’s when they first moved in, as the Johnson home wasn’t completely finished, and Benson apparently was interested in work.

The last witness of the day was another neighbor at the time, Joni Baillo, who has since moved away.

Baillo recounted the group text discussion and that she had initiated the discussion. She said she knew Benson and considered him a friend.

She recalled a visit from Benson around the time of alleged February, 2018 incident, and him becoming agitated saying, “Nobody’s gonna shoot down my drone,” and “nobody can tell me what to do” with it.

At that time, Baillo asked him to leave, she said.

At about 5:30 PM, Hampton recessed the trial and took the two attorneys into the jury room to discuss another date to continue the trial, as it was evident that several more witnesses would be called, and the trial might take another day or more to complete.

Thursday, March 12, 10:30 AM was agreed upon by the parties.

One other notable item was the presence of several LPSO deputies in court, in addition to the regular courtroom bailiffs with whom we are familiar.

There were several other plainclothes law enforcement officers there, possibly investigators with the Attorney General’s Office.

Drone Trial Delayed to Afternoon

02/12/2020

The Lincoln Parish “Drone Trial” that was set to begin at 9:00 AM this morning in Third Judicial District Division C Judge Bruce Hampton’s Ruston courtroom was delayed until 2:30 PM this afternoon, due to a lengthy misdemeanor docket.

The prosecutor, Louisiana Assistant Attorney General Michelle Thompson of Monroe and defense attorney Jordan Bird of Shreveport could be seen retiring to the court’s jury room early on, presumably to discuss logistics.

At their brief appearance at the bench, they said there were three motions for Hampton to consider prior to trial, two for the prosecution and one for the defense.

One of the prosecution motions is a request to introduce evidence of other “related crimes” that allegedly took place at another time, and the other is a motion in limine to exclude expert testimony by the defense.

The defense motion is a motion to introduce expert testimony via skype and have it projected upon a screen in the courtroom.

James Benson is accused of criminal trespass for overflying a neighbors property with his unmanned drone.

Franks Claims Fed OK to be “Appointed” to Office

02/12/2020

Lincoln Parish Police Juror-elect (District Three) Marvin Franks said last night that the agency that regulates political activity by federal employees won’t allow him to be sworn in as an elected juror as long as he is a federal employee.

As of last night, he had not taken his oath of office.

However, he said, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has confirmed that he can be appointed to the position, were it vacant.

We asked for a copy of that OSC confirmation, and expect to get a copy today.

At a 1/22/20 meeting of the jury, Assistant District Attorney Lewis Jones said, “If if he does not ask to be sworn in to take his oath within 30 days of January 13, the seat will be declared to be vacant.”

That 30 day window closes at the end of business today.

Here is what the Louisiana Revised Statutes have to say:

RS 42:141

Time limitation on oath and bond; failure to comply

A. Each public officer, within thirty days after receipt of his commission or within thirty days after receipt of his commission certificate, whichever is later, shall take the oath of office prescribed by law, and give bond, when required, and file the same in the proper office in the manner required by law.

B. Subject to the time limitation set forth in Subsection A of this Section, a public officer may take his oath of office at any time after he receives his commission or commission certificate. An oath taken prior to the date shown on the commission shall be deemed to have been taken on and shall be effective on and after the date on which the term of office for which the oath is taken commences. In cases where the office is one for which no date for term of office is set, an oath taken prior to the date on the commission shall be deemed to have been taken on and shall be effective on and after the date on the commission.

C. Failure to comply with the requirements of this Section shall create a vacancy in the office, and the vacancy shall be filled in accordance with law as in other cases of vacancy.

Franks said that when he first decided to run for office, he thought that the police jury seat was non-partisan, and thus it was allowable for a federal employee to run. He based that opinion on advice from the Lincoln Parish Clerk of Court, who he said told him the office was non-partisan.

However, just prior to the runoff election in November, his supervisor directed him to contact the OSC for a ruling on whether or not the office was partisan. According to Franks, they said it was partisan, as each candidate’s party affiliation is listed on the election ballot.

In a prepared statement, Franks said, “And because of that, they ruled that I could not accept the position to which I was elected-unless I was no longer a federal employee.”

He added, “As all these events were transpiring, the Louisiana Army National Guard was already processing my discharge. When I received the final ruling from the Office of Special Counsel, I asked for that discharge process to be expedited. My discharge packet is now at the federal level and in the final stages of being complete. As soon as I am discharged from the National Guard, I will retire from my federal job so that I can be sworn into the Police Jury position to which I was elected.”

See here the complete statement.

Franks’ remarks were made at the beginning of last night’s regular monthly police jury meeting.

After the meeting, Lincoln Parish News Online asked Franks if he had prior to filing for office sought guidance from the OSC on whether or not he should run.

Said Franks, “No. I didn’t even know who they were. I’ve been a supervisor for 20 plus years, and I’ve never heard of the Office of Special Counsel.”

Aerial Drone Trespassing Trial Wednesday

02/10/2020

We got this press release yesterday. Looks to be an interesting case that could create groundbreaking case law. We’ll be covering it.

Lincoln Parish Man Facing Charges of Aerial Trespass
Louisiana Seeks Jurisdiction of Airspace in Spite of FAA Warning and Lack of Statue

Ruston, LA, February 9, 2020: The Lincoln Parish courthouse in Ruston, Louisiana will be the focus of drone operators from across the state on Wednesday, February 12th, 2020 at 9:00am.

Mr. James Benson of Dubach, Louisiana has been charged with trespassing after flying a small drone in his back yard and briefly flying over a neighboring property at a height of 400 feet. The FAA, who was provided sole jurisdiction of airspace by Congress through the passage of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, allows drones to be flown recreationally up to height of 400 feet so long as they do not interfere with manned aircraft.

The neighbor, Mr. Matt Henderson, a sheriff deputy with Lincoln Parish, and his wife Erin Henderson took offense to the drone’s flight. Henderson’s colleague subsequently made an arrest and Benson was jailed for 12 hours. The alleged incident took place on April, 11th, 2018 while the arrest was not made until four days later. It is only now being heard by the Honorable Bruce Hampton as multiple prosecutors refused the case in over the past 21 months.

This case has significance in the budding drone industry as a verdict against Mr. Benson could negatively impact commercial drone operations around the state with the threat of aerial trespassing. It would also put Louisiana at odds with the FAA over jurisdiction of airspace and flight regulations. As drones are classified in the same realm as kites, weather balloons, and model rockets, there are potential consequences for those enthusiasts as well.

In 2015 the Chief Legal Counsel for the FAA warned against states or local governments creating or enforcing their own drone ordinances in an UAS fact sheet arguing that doing so creates a “‘patchwork quilt’ of differing restrictions could severely limit the flexibility of FAA in controlling the airspace and flight patterns, and ensuring safety and an efficient air traffic flow.” Similarly a case in federal court, Singer v. Newton City, MA, was decided in September of 2017 and struck down a local government’s attempts at preempting the FAA’s control of airspace.

While 17 states have passed laws over the last three years to specifically disallow local governments from attempting to usurp FAA authority over flight, this case sees Louisiana as the first state to challenge the Congressional Act that regulation of airspace resides with the federal government.

Louisiana’s trespassing law was recently modified to include drones. It states: “No person shall enter upon immovable property owned by another without express, legal, or implied authorization.” “For purposes of this Subsection, the phrase ‘enter upon immovable property’ as used in this Subsection, in addition to its common meaning, signification, and connotation, shall include the operation of an unmanned aircraft system as defined by in the air space over immovable property owned by another with the intent to conduct surveillance of the property or of any individual lawfully on the property.”

The incident and arrest took place four months before the state law changed to add unmanned aircraft systems. Mr. Benson claims there was no surveillance, but instead was purely recreational in intent and had no interest in his neighbor’s property or any persons on the land.

Attorney Jordan Bird is counsel for Mr. James Benson: https://www.cookyancey.com/attorney-profiles/jordan-b-bird/

Lengthy Police Jury Agenda for Tuesday

02/09/2020

The Lincoln Parish Police jury will meet Tuesday, February 11, Lincoln Parish Court House, third floor. Committee meetings begin at 5:00 PM, with the full jury meeting at 7:00 PM.

Public Works Committee – 5:00 PM
Agenda

Public Property & Buildings Committee – 5:30 PM
Agenda

Personnel/Benefits Committee – 6:00 PM
Agenda

Solid Waste & Recycling Committee – 6:15 PM
Agenda

Police Jury – 7:00 PM
Agenda

School District Gets Clean Audit

02/05/2020

The Lincoln Parish School District received an “unmodified” audit opinion for their 2018-2019 fiscal year books, Allen, Green & Williamson’s Margie Williamson last night told the monthly meeting of the school board.

An unmodified opinion is the best opinion that can be given, Green said, and means that the financial statements are presented, in all material respects, in accordance with applicable financial reporting framework.

She noted however, that the district’s fund balance had decreased.

Said Williamson, “The net change in fund balance for the general is actually a decrease of $3.5 million.”

Also, she said there were two findings, one of which involved monies at Simsboro School.

“Around mid-April, the principal contacted the athletic director and asked him to look into the baseball account. The baseball coach intentionally ignored school board receiving and expenditure procedures for the baseball fund. Throughout the year, he collected funds without receipting individuals who turned in money to him and he didn’t deposit these funds into the school account. The baseball coach stated that the funds he collected and didn’t deposit were used for various purposes, but were all for school purposes. But he didn’t provide any receipts for those expenditures.

Several issues were also noted where the bookkeeper didn’t follow the school board policy regarding student activity funds. There were numerous receipts written to individuals she didn’t actually receive money from. Most of the receipts reviewed had no documentation. Fund raisers weren’t tracked or reconciled.”

The second finding involved an inadvertent error in the health insurance fund.

The board head several reports from department heads, including the monthly personnel report

Lower Electric Bills for Ruston Likely

02/04/2020

Lower electric bills for Ruston utility customers are likely on the way because of a significantly cheaper rate from the power company that supplies wholesale electricity to the city.

Constellation Energy’s bid for a seven-year contract to supply power at a rate of $29.14 per megawatthour (Mwh) is considerably cheaper than the $40 per Mwh of the expiring five-year contract.

The Ruston City Council unanimously approved the new contract at last night’s meeting.

Said Public Works Director Darrell Caraway, “There will be some significant savings for our customers.”

Caraway added that the city has used Constellation as a supplier for over 20 years. The new contract takes effect June 1.

According to the FY 2020 budget adopted last fall, the city had estimated approximately $15 million in costs for power. That cost is marked up before it is resold to the city’s customers.

How much savings the customer actually sees will depend upon how much of the savings is passed along.

In other business, the council approved the acquisition of property to allow South Monroe Street improvements.

Also, approval was granted for engineering to begin on a project that will construct sidewalks along East Mississippi Avenue.

Dubach NOT on School Board Agenda

02/03/2020

As promised by Lincoln Parish School District Superintendent Mike Milstead last week, the issue of Dubach School is not on the agenda for tomorrow night’s meeting of the school board.

The meeting is set for Tuesday, February 4, 6:00 PM, Central Office, 410 South Farmerville Street, Ruston.

Here’s the complete agenda.