By Lee Zurik & Dannah Sauer | WVUE | February 7, 2022
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) – A recent FOX 8 investigation revealed hundreds of accused criminals essentially timed out of jail or their bond obligations because the District Attorney hadn’t charged them. However, the Metropolitan Crime Commission says the number of releases is much higher.
The law behind the releases is known in the legal community as a 701 release. The State Criminal Code gives defendants the right to a speedy trial. It sets a time limit on how long the district attorney must file charges. In most felony cases, if the D.A. fails to bring charges, the defendant is released from jail after two months behind bars.
If the defendant is out on bond, in most cases, they are released from their bond obligations after 150 days.
When police arrested Edmond Ramee for murder earlier this month, FOX 8 learned the D.A.’s office failed to screen two prior cases. With no decision on whether to accept or refuse charges, the D.A.’s office essentially allowed Ramee to time out of his bond obligations.
Police arrested Ramee for battery of a police officer and domestic abuse battery in December 2020. In July of 2021, he was arrested again for aggravated battery. District Attorney Jason Williams didn’t accept or refuse the charges and let Ramee’s bond obligations expire.
Now, police say he committed murder.
The court docket didn’t have a notation that Ramee had two prior 701 releases. FOX 8 learned about them through his magistrate hearing. That’s because two magistrate commissioners use different languages, and don’t note 701 on the docket report.
Last week, FOX 8 reported 701 release numbers in New Orleans. Prior to Williams taking over as D.A., the office had between 60 and 133 701 releases a year. In 2021, when Williams took over, 701 releases shot up to 885. However, because not all magistrate commissioners use 701 on their reports, we knew the numbers were low.
The Metropolitan Crime Commission went case by case, studying each docket, to produce the real number. It found the number of 701 releases in 2021 was 1,524.
“The number is actually worse,” said Rafael Goyeneche with the MCC. “I’ve never seen it this bad before.”
“That’s a stunning failure of the district attorney’s office to do their most fundamental task, and that is to screen arrest reports that are submitted to them by the district or by the police department,” Goyeneche said.
Of the nearly 2,600 felony arrests in New Orleans in 2021, the MCC says the D.A.’s office failed to comply with the 701 deadline 59% of the time.
“Well, if they are released from their bail obligation, first off the period for people that are out of custody is five months. You can’t make a decision on whether to charge someone with a crime five months after the arrest was made? The police department’s policies are that a report is supposed to be submitted within seven days of arrest,” said Goyeneche. “So, what is the hang-up? Why can’t you make that screening decision? That’s very fundamental. This isn’t just a breakdown in the system. This is a shocking embarrassment that the district attorney’s office is not cognizant of Louisiana law. And they don’t have an internal policy to track this.”
The head of the Orleans Public Defenders also has concerns.
“It’s one of those really important safety valves in our system so that people don’t get lost in jail or have to spend more time in jail than is absolutely necessary,” said Derwyn Bunton.
Bunton has pushed to get 701 deadlines shortened. He says Louisiana can hold suspects in jail for much longer than many other states.
“We have been big advocates for screening cases fast. Focusing on the more serious and screening them you faster. If you’re in New York, for example, the DA has about six days to figure out whether or not they’re going to pursue charges, or you get out,” said Bunton. “And in some places in the deep south … it feels almost indefinite. And what that really makes us look at is training and resources. The only way you move those cases faster is you train folks to screen better, you have resources, you have actual people who can move those cases. But all the way to the street … the police have to know when you have to bring good cases into the system so that they’re not difficult to screen so that you have evidence lined up, you know where your witnesses are … you can figure that out fairly timely, so that folks aren’t sitting in jail, losing time with family, missing, rent payments, missing work.
When FOX 8 interviewed the D.A. last week, he emphasized the office’s commitment to prosecuting violent offenders.
“I would encourage a listener or stakeholder to look at what we have to focus on, which is protecting the public from violent offenders,” said Williams, “And we’re doing that at a 99% clip.”
However, the MCC says its numbers show that the D.A.’s office rate of 701 compliance for the most serious violent felonies is just 37%.
“This isn’t just the offender’s rights this is the rights of the victims, the witnesses, and the law-abiding citizens that are being adversely impacted by every one of these non-compliance 701 screening decisions,” said Goyeneche. “So, it’s a public safety issue, as well as an offender’s rights issue. And, you know, that is something that the district attorney’s office has always done in Orleans Parish, and I’m hoping that this will be corrected in short order by this administration.”
FOX 8 reached out to the D.A.’s office for a comment on the Metropolitan Crime Commission report. The D.A.’s office didn’t respond.