HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html New Orleans City Council Reclassifies Pot Possesion
Pubdate: Sat, 18 Dec 2010
Source: Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)
Copyright: 2010 The Times-Picayune
Author: Bruce Eggler, The Times-Picayune
Bookmark: (Cannabis - United States)


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

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

. "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
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