Criminal Justice

City Council may downgrade pot possession, other charges

By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer

The City Council is set to ease the punishment for some misdemeanors in an effort to unclog the city’s jails and courts.

Instead of an arrest on a state charge, offenders could get a ticket ordering them to municipal court on four specific crimes:

  • * Simple possession of marijuana
  • * Interfering with a law enforcement investigation
  • * Flight from an officer
  • * Prostitution

Marijuana possession is by far the most common charge among those up for review.

The measures were introduced at the City Council meeting Wedensday.

If approved, the moves will support efforts by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s Criminal Justice Working Group to reduce the number of inmates in the city’s jail.

The four ordinances would create four new city-level crimes, and officers would be encouraged to charge offenders with these, instead of similar state charges, which have been prosecuted by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. The city charges would be handled by City Attorney Nannette Jolivette Brown.

The council’s Criminal Justice Committee has decided against effectively downgrading another charge after Cannizzaro raised concerns in early October: possession of controlled dangerous substances in the presence of a minor. Cannizzaro’s spokesman explained the reason for his boss’s concerns.

“We didn’t want to get someone picked up for possession of heroin, plead guilty to the possession [in the presence of a minor] charge in municipal court and then have double-jeopardy issues with the heroin charge in state court,” Assistant District Attorney Chris Bowman said.

The ordinances will be discussed at the Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday and will move forward for a final council vote on Dec. 16.

About 2,500 people a year are jailed in New Orleans for simple marijuana possession, according to the Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans, and in theory, all of them could be given summonses as a result of the new municipal ordinances, instead of being arrested and taken to jail on state charges. Vera, which has been pushing for the reforms, is expecting that 67 percent  of arrestees will be given summonses — around 1,700 fewer jail admissions for simple marijuana possession over a year.

“You can see a significant reduction in the use of jail beds flowing from these reforms,” Vera Director Jon Wool said.

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  • Of course “flight from an officer” makes giving out the municipal summons a little difficult, but this is a move in the right direction.

  • jeffrey

    Can you please clarify why the double jeopardy threat is an issue in the case of the heroin charge and not in the other cases? Does it have to do with “in the presence of a minor”? Or does it have to do with the where and by whom such charges would be filed?

  • Matt Davis


    Good question. In this case, presumably, it’s the possession of the substance in the presence of a minor that would be charged in municipal court, and not the possession of the substance itself. But Cannizzaro was concerned about conflating the two charges.

  • Hooray. If they actually downgrade pot possession I will be very impressed. I’m impressed they are even considering it.

  • This is very encouraging and we hope your representatives take the right position and make cannabis a ticketable offense.

  • Mr. Man

    Although I would agree that this “offense”, possession of marijuana, is a victimless crime and should be declared legally mute, it is obvious to me that the system is still opting to save their hidden tax revenue, making it all the more obvious now by not including expensive jail time in the mix. When is the public going to understand that this is all that matters to them? It has always been all about the money! We are not saving souls or ridding our communities of evil doers! We are, however, punishing thousands of innocent people for seeking medical relief and/or simply trying to enjoy the weekend.

  • *The group also is continuing to develop the concept of a public intoxication center, as an alternative to jail. The center would likely combine some form of criminal sanction with detoxification services, and could benefit from the injection of state dollars for rehabilitation. In the meantime, the alliance has been analyzing public intoxication arrests.

    Before any analyzing of anything first analyze the person being arrested to see if they are intoxicated in the first place. what people involved in this dont relize is the police use the charge of public intoxication to arrest a person who hasn’t commited any crime at all. i know this first hand because it happened to me twice.i was arrested and didn’t know why until i was booked with this false charge.i requested a breath test to prove the charge as false ,but was told they dont administer them. but they do on a DWI arrest to prove the case in court. so it’s an unknown thing that goes on in orleans parish so all the numbers your logging as public intoxication arrest are wrong and any information your applying to the developement of a public intoxication center, as an alternative to jail.would be wrong The center would likely combine some form of criminal sanction with detoxification services, and could benefit from the injection of state dollars and this injection would be misuse of state dollars for rehabilitation because of this miss information your logging. In the meantime, you should analyzing public intoxication arrests.