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Case of convicted former Lafourche councilman heads back to appeals court

Houma Today logo Houma Today 10/20/2021 Dan Copp, The Courier
James Bourgeois © File James Bourgeois

A state appeals court is reviewing the case of a former Lafourche Parish councilman who was convicted of filing false public records. 

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge this week is weighing arguments in the case of James Bourgeois, who was convicted in 2018 of falsely declaring he was a resident of his district. 

Bourgeois, who was suspended from his council seat shortly after his conviction, served as the councilman of District 5, which includes Bayou Blue and parts of Pointe-aux-Chenes and Raceland. According to parish law, council candidates must have lived in their respective districts for at least one year prior to the end of the election sign-up period.   

Gavel © File Gavel

More: State Supreme Court hears arguments in case of former Lafourche councilman

Bourgeois signed up as a candidate Dec. 2, 2015, and indicated in his paperwork he lived at 68 Magnolia St. in Raceland. However, prosecutors alleged he instead used his Raceland home as a “camp,” where he held occasional crawfish boils, parties and other events but always returned to a house in Metairie, in Jefferson Parish.  

After Bourgeois was convicted, a judge gave him a suspended three-year sentence and ordered him to serve two years of supervised probation and 200 hours of community service.   

Citing lack of evidence, the 1st Circuit reversed the conviction June 17, 2020, prompting the Lafourche Parish District Attorney’s Office to take the matter to the state Supreme Court in New Orleans, which reinstated the conviction and sentence in May. 

Attorney Mark Plaisance, who represents Bourgeois, argued in court papers that the law does not require his client to remain at one residence in Lafourche once he was elected.  

“Any challenge to his lack of domicile after his election belonged solely to the Lafourche Parish Council,” Plaisance said. “And, lastly, the admission of the irrelevant evidence is irreparably and harmfully prejudicial. It allowed the jury to view Bourgeois in an unfavorable light because it permitted the state to insinuate Bourgeois’ 2017 travel was clear indication he was not domiciled in Lafourche Parish two years earlier.” 

Bourgeois’ travel between parish lines was not illegal or wrong, Plaisance said. 

“And it is not evidence that proves motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake or accident,” he said. “The number of trips taken by Bourgeois in and out of Lafourche Parish two years after he filed his candidacy affidavit is not substantially relevant to whether he was domiciled in Lafourche Parish on Dec. 2, 2015. Rather, the admission of such evidence allowed the jury to erroneously conclude Bourgeois had engaged in such behavior for years, without any evidence to support the supposition.” 

The trial judge also gave jurors an incorrect definition of “domicile,” Plaisance said.  

“As this court has repeatedly stated – and as the Supreme Court stated in its opinion reversing this court’s decision on lack of sufficiency of evidence – the civil definition of ‘domicile’ is ‘residence’ and ‘intent to remain,’” he said. “Instructing the jury that to establish domicile a person must have the ‘intent to remain in place’ does not provide the proper definition. … The additional language is incorrect, is not part of the legislative definition and is misleading. Because Bourgeois objected to the erroneous definition and because the jury obviously was confused by the definition – evidenced by three separate requests for the court to define the term – this court must vacate and remand for a new trial with instructions regarding the correct definition.” 

Also: Louisiana Supreme Court denies rehearing for former Lafourche councilman

The defense argues that there is an “overwhelming” amount of evidence showing Bourgeois was domiciled in Lafourche when he filed the records. 

“This evidence included Bourgeois’s driver’s license, voter registration, marriage license application, homestead exemption, active post office box and registration for several vehicles which the state failed to discover,” Plaisance said. 

 The District 5 seat is now occupied by Councilman Jim Wendell. 

The appeals court is expected to make a ruling on the matter at a later date. 

— Staff Writer Dan Copp can be reached at 448-7639 or at dan.copp@houmatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanVCopp.    

This article originally appeared on The Courier: Case of convicted former Lafourche councilman heads back to appeals court

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