|Photo: Jennifer Zdon/The Times-Picayune
|The New Orleans City Council on Thursday decided that people accused of marijuana possession and three other misdemeanors will receive a summons instead of being arrested and brought to the Orleans Parish Prison.
If you get picked up for marijuana possession or prostitution in New Orleans, police no longer have to arrest you and take you to jail.
In a move designed to 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 and three other relatively minor crimes as municipal offenses, giving police the option to issue a summons rather than make an arrest, reports Bruce Eggler at The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Until now, the crimes have been illegal only under Louisiana 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 judges and prosecutors who handle serious felonies.
Since defendants will often no longer be jailed, even for a few hours, the New Orleans will save the expense of housing and feeding them, and the defendants’ own lives will not be needlessly disrupted, according to city council members.
The changes are “an important step in increasing the effectiveness, efficiency and equity of our criminal justice system,” according to Councilwoman Susan Guidry, co-chair of the council’s Criminal Justice Committee.
The four crimes affected 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.
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, according to Guidry.
Guidry said 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.
She quoted Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas as saying the change is “not being soft on crime but smart on crime.” (Have these people been listening to Rick Steves
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 Cannizzaro’s initiative, marijuana possession cases are already being tried in Municipal Court. The law passed Thursday means that prosecution of those cases can now 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.