BY MATT SLEDGE | NOLA.com-The Advocate | JUL 29, 2020
New Orleans police would have to swiftly turn over body-worn camera footage to criminal defendants, and police would have less leeway to arrest people for minor crimes under a pair of ordinances the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee discussed this week.
Council President and Committee Chair Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney who’s running for district attorney in the Nov. 3 election, said he’s sponsoring the ordinances as a way to improve fairness in the legal system and address racial disparities.
The committee didn’t vote Tuesday on either measure after hearing hours of testimony, but supporters urged the council to approve one measure to respond to recent revelations about Police Department task forces and the other to help prevent coronavirus outbreaks in the New Orleans jail.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, which has frequently sparred with Williams and wasn’t invited to testify at the hearing, said it opposed both measures. A spokesman for Mayor LaToya Cantrell said her administration and the NOPD have only had “initial conversations” with Williams.
“We look forward to continuing those conversations to ensure that all relevant information is fully considered and discussed,” the spokesman said.
One ordinance is relatively simple, at least on the surface. Instead of waiting for prosecutors to turn over body-worn or in-car camera footage of an arrest after their clients are charged, defense attorneys would be able to request and receive video from the NOPD within 30 days of the arrest.
Defense lawyers have long complained about delays in receiving evidence ahead of trial, and several testifying Tuesday said they thought quick disclosure of video would prevent miscarriages of justice.
After Radon Ray was arrested by 8th District task force officers on New Year’s Day 2019, he sat in jail for two weeks before his family could raise enough money to bail him out, according to Orleans Public Defenders staff attorney Diana Yu’s testimony.
She said three months later she received body-cam footage that captured officers getting their stories straight back at the station house about how to justify the arrest.
The Police Department has launched a criminal investigation of the officers. Prosecutors, after first defending the arrest up to the state Supreme Court, dropped the case on June 10.
Yu said having the video earlier “would have saved an enormous waste of already limited resources, from the public defender to the jail.”
However, a District Attorney’s Office spokesman said prosecutors believed the body-worn camera measure “not only would violate state law, but would seriously endanger many crime victims and witnesses.”
The spokesman pointed to a provision of state law that allows prosecutors to withhold witness identity information ahead of trial if they believe it would pose a danger to their safety.
The other ordinance proposed by Williams is aimed at reducing the churn of arrestees in and out of the New Orleans jail.
Except for domestic violence violations, when an officer has the discretion to make a misdemeanor arrest or issue a summons, the officer would need to certify that one of several circumstances exists to place a suspect in cuffs.
The arrestee would have to lack ID, openly refuse the summons, act violently or threaten to do so or have a history of arrests, according to the proposed ordinance.
Alexis Chernow, an Orleans Public Defenders staff attorney, said that while the population of the New Orleans jail has dropped significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, there are still too many people being arrested on slight offenses.
Over an eight-day period ending Sunday, 30 people were arrested in New Orleans on offenses that could have resulted in a summons instead, Chernow said.
She said there is still a risk of a new inmate spreading the virus to other incarcerated people or to deputies, pointing to a recent second outbreak at the lockup. The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday that a new round of testing this month revealed that five employees, one contract medical staffer and 14 inmates had the virus. Officials await results on another 80 inmate tests.
One criminal justice group’s data analysis suggests that even if the ordinance passes, many misdemeanor arrests would continue. Most misdemeanor arrests from March to late May were for violent offenses, and 87% of violent misdemeanor arrests included at least one domestic violence charge, according to the Metropolitan Crime Commission.