By Jeff Adelson and Matt Sledge | NOLA.com | September 25, 2019
New Orleans City Council members want to wipe the slate clean for tens of thousands of people with unpaid fines and fees, some almost two decades old, in the city’s municipal and traffic courts.
The council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday gave the green light to a resolution calling on the City Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes such cases, to dismiss all outstanding charges for “low-level, nonviolent and so-called quality-of-life offenses, which are typically associated with homelessness and poverty.”
A companion ordinance would instruct judges in Municipal Court to determine whether a defendant has the ability to pay a fine before imposing a penalty.
Councilman Jason Williams, who chairs the committee, said it was an important step toward making sure that those with outstanding fines can stop “living life in fear.”
Both measures now head to the full council for consideration.
Stand with Dignity, an advocacy organization, has pushed to scale municipal fines to a defendant’s ability to pay and to wipe out fees charged by the courts that can add significantly to the overall price of a violation. Those costs add inequity to a system the group dubbed the “NOLA Shakedown,” which they said further burdens already poor residents of the city with hefty fees and fines.
“We’re asking the system today to stop shaking us down and give us the opportunity to reach our full potential,” said Latoya Lewis, an organizer with the group.
Beyond the fiscal hit that such fines can cause, members of the group said those penalties can have “devastating” impacts in cases where, for example, someone’s driver’s license is suspended, keeping them from being employed.
Stand with Dignity has focused its attention not only on the fines handed out by the municipal and traffic courts, which typically handle low-level offenses, but also on the backlog of active warrants indicating fines that have never been paid or cases that have never been resolved.
An analysis by the group found there are more than 55,000 outstanding warrants for more than 44,000 people in the two courts dating back to 2002.
More than 7,000 of those are for disturbing the peace, another 7,000 are for obstructing a public place, nearly 5,700 are for public drunkenness, and thousands more are for charges such as criminal trespass, failure to appear in court and simple possession of marijuana.
Despite the eye-popping number of outstanding municipal warrants, Judge Paul Sens said they represent less than 3 percent of the 1.9 million cases the courts have handled since 2002. Moreover, there is no way of telling whether the more than 40,000 people with attachments are still living in Orleans Parish or are even alive, he said.
While in theory those warrants can lead to arrests, it’s not clear how often that occurs. Sens said arrests are typically made only if a person has numerous warrants or a judge specifies that a defendant is to be brought in.
But council members said lifting the cloud over those with outstanding warrants would be a step toward decriminalizing poverty. Councilman Jay H. Banks said that going after people for such minor offenses is an “incredible waste of resources.”
“There are some very bad people in New Orleans,” Banks said. “I support the police and the courts in their efforts to rid those very bad people from our streets, but someone who doesn’t hurt anybody, they should not be called criminal.”
But Sens voiced a philosophical objection to wiping away the fines and fees of some offenders when others have coughed up the cash.
“For those people who have done what they’re expected to do, it seems to be inequitable,” Sens said. “They have done everything that the law expects them to do.”
Judges already ask offenders if they would prefer community service to a fine, Sens said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said that police in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana have the authority to let people with municipal warrants go without arresting them as a result of 2011 legislation.