From December 2019, a handcuffed man is led toward the New Orleans jail. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The Orleans Public Defenders asked the New Orleans Municipal Court this week to toss out over 3,000 open cases stemming from a city ordinance that outlaws begging, along with any pending fines and fees.

The local law was declared unconstitutional in a 2013 ruling from Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter. The ruling was later upheld by the state’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal and the Louisiana Supreme Court after the District Attorney’s office appealed. 

It appears that the city has mostly stopped enforcing the begging prohibition since 2013, but there are still outstanding cases from charges filed prior to Hunter’s ruling. According to the public defenders’ motions, nearly 1,000 of them have attachments — meaning a person could be arrested for the outstanding charge. 

“We need to get rid of them, because there are 1,000 people who could get picked up at any given time by NOPD,” said Lauren Anderson, the Supervising Attorney at Municipal and Magistrate Court for the public defenders, who filed the motions.

She said that open charges didn’t simply disappear after the law was ruled unconstitutional.

“It doesn’t mean those cases automatically went away,” she said. “They’re just sitting there.”

Anderson filed two motions, one that would quash begging charges that are still in the system but have not yet gone through court, and another that would waive outstanding fines and fees for people who already plead guilty to the crime.

A spokesperson for the NOPD said that they do not “actively enforce this ordinance.”

A spokesperson for the city said that while they had “not been served with the motions referenced,” and therefore were not in a position to comment, the law outlawing begging has not been enforced for “many years”

“The City Attorney’s Office has not actively prosecuted begging charges for many years. To the extent a defendant makes an appearance on a ‘begging’ charge, the charges are generally dismissed.”

The motions are part of a broader local movement to have outstanding warrants and fines and fees for low-level offenses tossed from Municipal Court. Anderson said the begging ordinance was low-hanging fruit. 

“These 3,077 cases that we filed motions on is just a start. The reason we did begging is because it’s unconstitutional, and there is absolutely no reason somebody should go to jail for that. They can’t actually be charged with it, and they shouldn’t be paying the city money for something that’s unconstitutional.”

In October, the City Council voted unanimously to pass a resolution urging local law enforcement officials to dismiss charges for low-level and “quality of life offenses, which are typically associated with homelssness and poverty” and asked the Municipal Court Judges “to recall all municipal and traffic court warrants for outstanding charges to allow defendants a significant opportunity to reach compliance and fully resolve cases.”

They also passed an ordinance that requires the court to first determine if a defendant has the ability to pay before assessing fines and fees. The ordinance also prohibited the imprisonment of any person due to their inability to pay court fines and fees. 

In 2013, New Orleans District Judge Arthur Hunter ruled that the ordinance outlawing begging was unconstitutional. The District Attorney’s office appealed his ruling to the 4th circuit, which upheld his ruling, and then to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. 

When the Supreme Court ruling came down, a spokesman for then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that the city would look into changing the ordinance in some way, and said it would stop being enforced. 

The law remained on the books, but Anderson said that for the most part begging charges are no longer being used to make new arrests. Instead, it has been functionally replaced by other low-level offenses.

“Begging was basically replaced by obstruction of a public passage, or the other of the thousands of other cases at Municipal Court that are mostly lifestyle crimes — sleeping on the sidewalk, trespassing, public intoxication —  mostly things that mentally ill people or homeless people are charged with,” she said. “Which is why the city council did the resolution last fall to get rid of all those cases.” 

But the City Council doesn’t have the authority to make those reforms for cases that have already been charged, and the resolution simply voiced the council’s opinion, rather than implement legal change. Anderson said the reforms in that resolution won’t come to pass without the cooperation from the City Attorney and the Municipal Court.

“When they did that resolution, it was kind of like building a house with no door,” she said. “It was an idea, but no way to actually accomplish it. Municipal Court has made no effort to get rid of those cases, the City Attorney has made no effort to get rid of those cases.”

Anderson said starting with the cases based on the begging ordinance was a way to get the ball rolling on the broader process of wiping the slate clean on the rest of municipal warrants and fees.

“The theory of starting with this is trying to show the judges, you know, this is probably the most outrageous thing, because this is an unconstitutional charge,” Anderson said.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...