Councilwoman Helena Moreno at a December 2019 City Council meeting (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

In 2018 and 2019, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office dropped charges in about 83 percent of misdemeanor domestic violence cases in New Orleans Municipal Court — which handles the vast majority of those charges — according to a city analysis. Defendants were only found guilty six percent of the time.

“As the analyst, I would like there to be another explanation,” said data analyst Jeff Asher, who has a contract with the City Council and presented the figures at a Tuesday meeting of the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee. “I would rather this be a database error or a coding error rather than the actual situation.”

In a press conference after the meeting, Cannizzaro said that victims in these cases are often not cooperative, making them “virtually impossible to prosecute.” He also said the council’s fierce criticism of his office’s practice of jailing witnesses for allegedly failing to cooperate has made the situation more difficult.

Council members, in particular Helena Moreno and Jason Williams, had asked Asher to look at the outcomes of domestic violence cases following a budget hearing with Cannizzaro last month. At that meeting, Cannizzaro told the council that his office was sending almost all domestic violence cases to Municipal Court, rather than the state Criminal District Court.

The New Orleans Police Department has a policy of charging domestic violence perpetrators under state law, rather than local ordinances, he said. Municipal Court mostly serves as a venue for minor municipal violations, but it can also handle state level misdemeanors. 

Cannizzaro said his office started sending most cases to Municipal Court in “2016 or 2017.”

“We found that in many of those cases, the misdemeanor [domestic violence] cases were getting bogged down in the state court,” he said. “The time it took us to file a charge in state court and the disposition of that charge in state court far exceeded what it took us to dispose of that very same case in the Municipal Court.”

He said that victims prefer to have their traumatic cases dealt with quickly, rather than linger in court for a year. According to First Assistant District Attorney Graymond Martin, it took the office an average of 270 days to wrap up a domestic violence case in state court versus only 30 to 60 days in Municipal Court. 

But on Tuesday, Moreno said the timing difference appeared to be directly linked with the high number of cases being dropped by the District Attorney in Municipal Court.

“Yes, there is a quicker disposition of cases because the cases are being dropped,” said Moreno, who has worked on domestic violence policy in Louisiana as a state legislator and as a member of the City Council.

While the District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute 83 percent of domestic violence misdemeanors in Municipal Court since 2018, it only dropped 24 percent of those charges in criminal district court, according to Asher’s presentation

“In criminal court, these cases, it appears, are being taken more seriously,” Moreno said.

But there were only 80 domestic violence cases brought through Criminal District Court since 2018, compared to more than 3,000 in Municipal Court. 

“It’s an absolute travesty, I’m just floored by this,” said Kim Sport, public policy chair for United Way of Southeast Louisiana. “Can you imagine what it takes for a victim to pick up the phone, or go to the police station beaten and bruised? Can you imagine the courage?”

She argued that victims of domestic violence are in the greatest danger right after they’ve made a move to end what is often a long cycle of violence, such as moving out or calling the police. She said that taking that danger on, only to have the case dropped, sends a message to the victim.

“Do you think that woman is going to call 911 again?” Sport asked. “It’s not going to happen.”

On the other hand, advocates and council members praised the New Orleans Police Department’s response to domestic violence, saying the department has made tremendous strides in taking domestic violence cases more seriously over the past year.

“If I was going to look at the biggest change, you’re right, NOPD has come to the table, they’ve been working with us,” said Mary Claire Landry, the director of the New Orleans Family Justice Center. “As opposed to the District Attorney’s Office, who has decreased resources dedicated to us.”

On top of dedicating more resources to working domestic violence cases, council members pointed out that domestic violence calls are particularly dangerous for police officers, with a higher chance of the officer being shot or killed than other types of calls for service. Williams said that with the rate that Cannizzaro is dropping these cases, “all that effort and energy and risk of those officers has been wasted.”

Williams also said that keeping domestic abusers accountable is important because they tend to pose a danger not only to the partners or family members they abuse, but to society as a whole. 

“Domestic abuse is typically born out of repeat offenses,” he said. “And these same abusers are acting violently on people outside of their intimate partners.”

Moreno argued that another problem with Municipal Court is that victims are missing out on “all kinds of resources” offered to victims in district court.

“I found out that Municipal Court has zero resources for domestic violence victims,” she said.

‘Victims are gonna get the blame.’

Toward the end of the meeting, Moreno predicted what Cannizzaro’s response to the council’s charges would be.

“Victims are gonna get the blame,” she said. “I see it coming. It’s going to be about victims don’t want to come forward, victims don’t want to participate and on and on.”

In a press conference after the meeting, Cannizzaro said that “it is virtually impossible to prosecute these low-level misdemeanor cases in Municipal Court absent a willing and cooperative victim.”

He said that politicians are partially to blame for the lack of cooperation. In February, the council passed a resolution calling on his office to stop jailing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault on so-called material witness warrants in order to compel them to testify. Then, last spring, the State Legislature passed a bill placing stricter limits on the use of material witness warrants on victims of sex crimes and domestic abuse. 

Cannizzaro said that the resolution amounted to “political grandstanding,” and that the “supposedly well-intentioned legislation has indeed diminished the victim participation so critical to successfully prosecuting domestic violence offenders.”

However, Asher also calculated disposition rates in criminal district court in prior years and found that the rate of dropped cases has stayed relatively steady since 2014. From 2014 to 2017, the district attorney dropped 30 percent of domestic violence cases in Criminal District Court. Since 2018, that figure is 24 percent. 

It appears that Cannizzaro will get a chance to make that argument directly to the council. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Moreno and Williams agreed that the next step is to call Cannizzaro in to a council meeting to answer questions. 

“What are his plans to take domestic violence seriously in this city?” Moreno asked. 

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...