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New Orleans Reduces Cannabis Penalties.

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by Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune, (Source:Times-Picayune)

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18 Dec 2010

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In a move that proponents said will reduce the dockets in Criminal District Court and give police more time to deal with major crimes, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously Thursday to designate marijuana possession, prostitution and two other relatively minor crimes as municipal offenses, giving police the option to issue a summons rather than make an arrest.


If you get picked up for marijuana possession or prostitution in New Orleans, police no longer will have to arrest you and take you to jail.


Until now, the crimes have been illegal only under state laws, meaning police had to arrest offenders and take them to Central Lockup for booking.


Because a summons is prosecuted in Municipal Court, not Criminal District Court, the change will reduce the caseload of the judges and prosecutors who handle serious felonies. And because defendants no longer will be jailed, even for a few hours, the city will be spared the expense of housing and feeding them, and the defendants' own lives will not be needlessly disrupted, council members said.


Councilwoman Susan Guidry, co-chairwoman of the council's Criminal Justice Committee, called the changes "an important step in increasing the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of our criminal justice system."


The four crimes involved are:


. Possession of "marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or chemical derivatives thereof, or synthetic cannabinoids" unless the substance was "obtained directly or pursuant to a valid prescription or order from a practitioner."


. Prostitution, defined as "indiscriminate sexual intercourse with others ... for compensation, " and soliciting someone for prostitution.


. "Flight from an officer" by the operator of a motor vehicle or boat if a police officer has used an emergency light and siren to signal the operator to stop.


. "Interfering with a law enforcement investigation" by refusing to move or leave the scene of a crime or accident when ordered to do so by a law enforcement officer.


Guidry said the new city laws mirror the state laws covering the same misdemeanors, including identical maximum penalties upon conviction: a $500 fine and-or six months in jail.


The idea of making the four types of crimes municipal offenses is backed by all segments of the criminal justice system, including judges, prosecutors and the police, Guidry said. She quoted Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas as saying the change is "not being soft on crime but smart on crime."


She said such cases can be prosecuted more quickly in Municipal Court than in Criminal District Court, where she said District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro found more than 1,000 marijuana cases "clogging the dockets" when he took office in 2008.


At his initiative, marijuana-possession cases already are being tried in Municipal Court. The law passed Thursday means that prosecution of those cases now can be shifted from the district attorney's office to the city attorney's office.


Thursday's actions continue a drive started by the previous City Council to reduce the number of people arrested and taken to jail, with the aim of saving the city money and freeing police officers to concentrate on arresting violent criminals.


In April 2008, the council passed two ordinances directing officers to issue a written summons instead of arresting and booking people found to have outstanding attachments for traffic violations and people who were stopped for most municipal offenses not involving domestic violence.


The municipal offenses included such things as disturbing the peace, trespassing, making threats, urinating in public, playing loud music and public intoxication.


At the time, the Metropolitan Crime Commission said that half of the 58,219 arrests in New Orleans during 2007 were for municipal or traffic offenses, meaning the Police Department was wasting precious resources on minor offenses.


It can take an officer as long as two hours to book a person on a municipal or traffic violation, and the person then is often released from jail within hours, even if the person can't make bail, the council was told.


Since 2008, the Criminal Justice Committee was told last week, the Police Department has doubled the proportion of summonses issued in municipal cases. As a result, Serpas said, officers can spend more time on the streets.


However, said Jon Wool of the Vera Institute, which advises the council on criminal justice issues, public-intoxication charges still prompt arrest 88 percent of the time, because officers are instructed to arrest a person who is a possible danger to himself or others.


To address that issue and reduce the numbers of drunks booked into the city's jails, officials are considering creating a "sobering center" where a defendant could sleep off intoxication and perhaps get help for substance abuse. Upon discharge, the offender could be issued a court summons for the charge.


Other cities do this successfully, Wool said, and the state might pay for up to seven days of care for people who are fighting substance abuse.



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Share This Article delicious.gif digg.gif stumble.gif facebook.gif twitter.gif Pubdate: Sat, 18 Dec 2010

Source: Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)

Copyright: 2010 The Times-Picayune

Contact: letters@timespicayune.com

Website: http://www.nola.com/t-p/

Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/848

Author: Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune

Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/topic/New+Orleans

Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/find?261 (Cannabis - United States)





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