- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The U.S. Department of Justice said it was investigating allegations that people may have been detained unlawfully by police officers and sheriff’s deputies in Evangeline Parish in central Louisiana.

The Justice Department said Tuesday it was looking into whether the Ville Platte Police Department and the Evangeline Parish Sheriff’s Office have used “investigative holds” to unlawfully detain people. It’s against the law for officers to detain people without proper cause.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is leading the investigation.

Officials with both Evangeline agencies did not immediately return messages seeking comment. Ville Platte Mayor Jennifer Vidrine also did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

DOJ said it was examining whether officers and deputies have engaged in a pattern using investigative holds in violation of the U.S. Constitution and federal law. It said both agencies had been contacted about the probe.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, “No individual should be detained without proper cause or arrested in violation of his or her civil rights.”

Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, said her organization learned of allegations of improper detentions recently.

“It’s blatantly illegal,” Esman said. “There’s a practice in the town of Ville Platte of looking for excuses to incarcerate people.”

She said the ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2011 against Ville Platte over what it considered an illegal curfew law. The curfew forbade people of all ages from walking between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. She said the town scrapped the curfew law after the ACLU filed the suit.

The Justice Department said the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 protects people from being detained without proper cause. Under that law, the Justice Department can pursue civil action against law enforcement agencies.

Federal officials said similar investigations have taken place elsewhere and led to “important reforms in police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country.”

In Evangeline, the Justice Department said it would examine how the police department and sheriff’s office prevent unlawful seizures.

U.S. Attorney Stephanie A. Finley in Lafayette said federal officials would work with the agencies “to make sure that similar violations do not occur in the future.”

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