Lauren Anderson, a public defender and attorney supervisor for Municipal Court, is furious as she looks over a list of their names. “It doesn’t make any sense,” she says. “We’re not making the city any safer. We’re only hurting these people, and we just keep doing it over and over. It’s infuriating.”
There are more than 56,000 outstanding warrants in New Orleans’s Municipal Court, dating to 2002, according to city data. A staggering 1 of 7 adults in the country’s 50th-largest city have a warrant out for their arrest.
Typically, the crime is failing to appear for scheduled court dates for minor, nonviolent offenses that do not carry a jail sentence, including panhandling and fishing without a license. (Two notable exceptions are battery and domestic abuse, which account for roughly 6 percent of all the warrants.) Anderson characterizes most of them as old nuisance crimes bogging down an already overburdened criminal justice system.
Now, a coalition of elected officials, local civil rights organizations such as Stand With Dignity and the public defender’s office is proposing a more permanent solution — wiping out nearly all 56,000 warrants, in addition to any debt accumulated from fines and fees.
If successful, New Orleans would be at the forefront of a growing movement to curb the use of warrants and the threat of arrest when the underlying charge might be little more than public intoxication. Only two cities — Ferguson, Mo., and San Francisco — and the state of New Jersey have attempted anything similar, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York.
“We need to consider all the damage this has caused and the psychological trauma it continues to impose on the minds and hearts and confidences of 14 percent of our population,” said City Council member Jason Williams. “This is New Orleans’s working poor. This is the hospitality community, musicians. These are people who are some of the reasons why people come to New Orleans in the first place.”
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Williams will introduce a resolution at the council’s meeting Wednesday calling for the dismissal of all warrants and charges associated with crimes of poverty and homelessness, such as obstruction of a public passageway and trespassing. These account for more than 40 percent of warrants. San Francisco’s criminal courts implemented a similar strategy in 2016, and in July, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore announced interest in it.
Williams will also call for the clearing of warrants issued post-conviction, which are most likely to be tied to someone’s inability to pay fines or fees. And he will ask the city to forgive all of the associated debt.
This is not just a “benevolent gift” to those residents affected, Williams said, but good financial sense. It costs about $2.7 million a year to staff a 40-person quad in the jail, he said. That is about the same number of people incarcerated on a daily basis for municipal warrants and misdemeanors.
Clearing a large chunk of the outstanding warrants would require buy-in from the city attorney’s office, which Williams is working to secure. Mayor LaToya Cantrell has yet to weigh in on any specific proposals and declined an interview request.
Her administration said in a statement that it is open to finding “creative ways to help individuals address outstanding warrants,” while adding that it is “important to note that some of the burden rests on the individuals who are charged with Municipal and Traffic offenses. We urge everyone to show up for their court hearings and comply with court orders.”
Not everyone is on board with eradicating every outstanding warrant. Paul Sens, chief judge of the Municipal Court, said he prides himself on operating “one of the most progressive courts in the United States,” but he worries that blanket amnesty would send the wrong message.
“There are a lot of people who come into this court and do what’s expected of them,” Sens said. “So why did this guy who’s got 20 cases and $5,000 worth of fines get his wiped out and they didn’t? It’s a balancing act you have to do.”
Sens also said that people should not fear being the subject of a warrant, because he requires an arrest only for missed court dates associated with domestic violence or driving while intoxicated. For nearly 80 percent of warrants, officers decide whether to arrest the individual.
“The police are given wide discretion, so this is not something that’s really hanging over people’s heads,” Sens said.
Bill Quigley, director of the law clinic at Loyola University, said that provides little comfort to the black citizens of New Orleans, who are more likely to have frequent and unpleasant encounters with the police.
“Things that are discretionary in the criminal justice system in New Orleans are always exercised at the expense of people of color and people without economic resources,” Quigley said. “Not so much if you’re a white law professor at Loyola.”
The New Orleans Police Department declined an interview request but provided the following statement: “Once a warrant is verified, an officer has no discretion regarding taking that individual into custody.”
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Questions about municipal warrants and their impact on public safety intensified after Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson. A subsequent Justice Department investigation of the city’s police department found that more than 16,000 people had outstanding municipal warrants in a city of 21,000 people.
Those warrants were “almost exclusively” used as a threat to generate revenue from poor, black communities through fines and fees, which they could not afford to pay, according to the Justice Department report. Five months later, Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin recalled all warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014, which amounted to nearly 10,000.
A similar ruling was issued in January by the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, who dismissed nearly 800,000 outstanding municipal cases.
Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York, worked for the Justice Department at the time of the Ferguson report. She said that most people miss court because they simply forget, do not have reliable transportation or child care, or cannot afford to miss work. And many are unable to pay their fines, so they stay away out of fear they will be arrested.
“We criminalized a lot of conduct over the last few decades that we may want to go back and think about,” Foster said. “We also know everybody speeds sometimes or rolls through a stop sign, but who gets caught tends to be people where there are a lot of police. And that’s overwhelmingly communities of color.”
Kelly Orians, co-director of the First 72+ nonprofit in New Orleans, which provides legal services and case management to people returning from prison, said she sees this issue play out nearly every day.
One of her clients, Kendell Morgan, 33, was pulled over in February for a broken taillight. The officer ran his name, saw he had an outstanding warrant in St. Charles Parish for a $219 speeding ticket and arrested him. Morgan was held in the New Orleans jail for seven days, then extradited to the St. Charles Parish jail. He was released only after his wife scraped together enough money to pay the ticket.
Morgan, who was employed as a restaurant manager at the time, was fired a short time later, having missed more than a week of work.
“They started looking at me different,” he said of his employer. “I was a different person to them.”
To Orians, it doesn’t make sense. The city is expending scarce resources, and the threat of incarceration leaves a large, vulnerable segment of the city’s population in fear of chance encounters with the police, she said.
“I’ve had two incidents where people called the police when they were a victim of a crime — one had a scooter stolen, one saw people popping door handles — and both were arrested when the police arrived because they had attachments,” Orians said, referring to warrants. “You think they are going to call the police again?”