Week in Review: Watchdog group says Orleans court drug-testing methods could lead to false positives

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Judges in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court may be punishing people — with fines, increased bonds or jail time — based on a flawed drug testing procedure, according to a new report by Court Watch NOLA. The report, released Wednesday by the watchdog group, found that the drug testing lab does not follow scientific best practices when doing drug screens, failing to adequately confirm test results and avoid false positives.

The court’s use of these questionable drug tests on defendants “appears to be a common occurrence” in New Orleans, the group said. And research cited in the report indicates that such testing — which comes at a cost to taxpayers — may not reduce recidivism. Still, the group identified dozens of cases where people went to jail for contempt after getting a positive drug test.

Court Watch found that sanctions handed out by judges based on positive drug screens are “inappropriate, inconsistent, and inequitable.”

Friends of King charter group to move to four-day school week

The Friends of King charter school network will be moving its to New Orleans schools to a four-day week beginning this fall, according to a 2019-2020 school calendar obtained by The Lens. The calendar removes Mondays from the school week, adding extra class time during the remaining four days.

The calendar is marked “proposed,” but  Friends of King board minutes from March say that the network “will implement” the four-day calendar this fall.

Asked for clarification, Friends of King attorney Tracie Washington wrote, “That’s the final calendar.”

Short term rental overhaul takes major step forward, but still plenty of work left

The New Orleans City Council on Thursday cleared one of the final hurdles to overhauling the city’s short-term rental laws, including new provisions that would eliminate hosts from renting out entire properties in residential neighborhoods.

The council voted to advance many recommendations from the City Planning Commission after passing 15 amendments, bringing the city one step closer to creating a more restrictive set of rules. Among those amendments, the council voted to maintain a ban on short-term rentals in most of the French Quarter and the Garden District.

The new rules would only allow residential short-term rentals for homeowners who have a valid homestead exemption and use that property as their primary residence. People would no longer be able to rent out entire residentially zoned properties, as they can under the city’s current system.

But the debate isn’t over yet. The new policies approved by the council still need to be written into ordinances, which will then go back to the council for a final vote within the next 90 days. Between now and then, the council can make changes.

Ongoing asbestos cleanup forces two schools to spend another year in temporary campuses

Two New Orleans charter schools will spend 2019-2020 in temporary facilities as multimillion-dollar asbestos remediation jobs stretch into another school year. The schools — Lafayette Academy and Rosenwald Collegiate Academy — had previously been expected to move into their permanent buildings this fall.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, the Orleans Parish School Board claims it has spent $5 million as a result of contractors’ mismanagement at Lafayette Academy’s South Carrollton Avenue building, which was closed last summer due to an asbestos release. The Choice Foundation, which runs Lafayette charter school, is OPSB’s co-plaintiff in the suit. The network says it’s spent $1.3 million replacing contaminated property.

Construction workers at Lafayette Academy botched an asbestos removal job last year. It was later discovered students had been on campus during previous asbestos work, potentially exposing them to the harmful material. A doctor later told parents their students were at little risk for asbestos-related illness.

Report sheds light on how often threat of habitual offender sentence may factor into guilty pleas

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro became notorious for using Louisiana’s habitual offender statute more than any other DA in the state. The law — an enhancement that can be applied when a repeat offender is convicted — can raise prison sentences by years, even decades.

In 2016, Cannizzaro made national headlines when his office used the law against a man accused of stealing $31 worth of candy, exposing him to a potential 20-year sentence.

For years, Cannizzaro’s office used the habitual offender statute more than any other DA’s office in the state: 2,600 times between 2009 and 2017, compared to 66 in East Baton Rouge Parish over the same period. But a 2018 analysis by The Lens found that over the past several years, Orleans Parish prosecutors have steadily scaled back their use of the enhancement, from 436 times from November 2012-October 2013 to 63 times from November 2017-October 2018.

But as that report noted, it was unclear how often prosecutors were threatening to employ the habitual offender law — but not actually using it — as a way to secure plea deals.

A new report sheds some light on that.

Behind The Lens episode 32: ‘There’s probably a lot of work that still needs to be done’

This week on Behind The Lens:

A major vote on short-term rentals at the City Council. Asbestos in New Orleans schools. And an interview with Brian Knighten of the Broad Theater about flooding and drainage in the city.

Judge’s order allows Sophie B. Wright students to walk at graduation, but it may have come too late

After being banned from walking at graduation for participating in a senior prank, six Sophie B. Wright Charter School students got the legal clearance to participate in the ceremony on Monday when an Orleans Parish Civil Court judge ruled against the school administration.

But the 8:45 a.m. order may have come too late for students to make it to the 9 a.m. ceremony, their lawyer said. Graduates were supposed to line up by 8 a.m.

The students were barred from graduation and suspended after participating in a senior prank water fight on April 5 that took place inside and outside the school. In a statement, the charter school’s board president said the prank damaged school property and several people were injured. Several dozen students were initially suspended, but the school rescinded the punishment following criticism over its severity. Some students, however, would still be barred from graduation.

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