Photo by Matt Davis

It has been more than a year since The Washington Post reported that there were a startling 56,000 outstanding warrants for people in New Orleans Municipal and Traffic Court dating back to 2002. A similar analysis by the group Stand With Dignity — an arm of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice — found about 55,000 warrants issued for about 44,000 people since 2000, or about one-seventh of the city’s adult population. 

The warrants — often issued because someone failed to appear in court on minor, nonviolent criminal charges —  were not just an abstract problem of inflated bureaucracy. They can have real consequences for people in the city. When a person gets picked up on a warrant, advocates and attorneys warn, it can lead to devastating cycles of debt, hardship, and jail time for many people who are already struggling financially.

So following the reports on these open attachments last year, the New Orleans City Council passed a non-binding resolution that encouraged the City Attorney’s Office and Municipal Court judges to clear a backlog of warrants and open low-level charges, and forgive all outstanding fines and fees. 

But despite the council’s effort to address the problem, it is still as bad as before. According to public defenders, there are around the same number of outstanding warrants that there were last year. And they also point out that there are now well over 700,000 open cases at Municipal Court — close to double the city’s population. Court Clerk Christopher Sens did not immediately respond to a request to confirm the number.

At the same time, a number of recent comments from the judges and their staff during court proceedings — now taking place via videoconference —  have raised concerns from a watchdog group over due process and the general attitude of the court toward defendants.

The ability to reduce that backlog of cases and attachments falls to Municipal and Traffic Court judges and the New Orleans City Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes municipal offenses. Judges have the ability to get rid of outstanding attachments and to forgive outstanding debts once a case has been adjudicated. The city attorney’s office has the ability to dismiss cases outright.

But advocates argue that neither the judges nor the City Attorney have done enough to address the problem.

“We’re here today because our elected judges and City Attorney have yet failed to take a single substantial step since we last met one year ago,” Ursula Price, executive director of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice, said at a meeting of the New Orleans City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee earlier this month. The meeting was also attended by Chief Municipal Court Judge Sean Early, along with Demetrie Ford from the City Attorney’s Office.

The judges and the City Attorney’s Office have both signaled a willingness to review some old cases and attachments. But they have also shown a reluctance to offer the kind of wholesale case dismissals advocated by the public defender’s office and pushed by the City Council.

“The City Attorney’s Office is willing to review the inventory of cases that are beyond the statute of limitations, as may be appropriate,” said City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf in a statement to The Lens. “Notably, the referenced matters date back to the 1990’s, and coordination will be required with the Court, and Court staff, to identify the relevant cases for review. We are currently in discussions regarding what the most efficient process will be given current limitations around resources and personnel capacity.”

‘They’re just choosing not to’

The public defender’s office has advocated for the City Attorney’s office to dismiss any cases that have passed their statute of limitations — prior to September 10, 2017 for most municipal charges, and any traffic, trespassing and marijuana cases older than June 2019. 

Lauren Anderson, the supervising attorney at Municipal Court for the public defenders office, said that it would be relatively easy for the City Attorney* to go back and clear cases, either by date or by type of charge.

“The ones where they’re never going to find a victim because it’s a victimless one that is literally just a lifestyle crime or clearly criminalizing poverty, they could just go in and blanket dismiss all of those, because they themselves told City Council that now if somebody comes through on those, they would just dismiss them anyway,” she said. “So anything that they would just dismiss now they could go back, look at everyone charged with those, and they could go in and get rid of them right now. There’s nothing preventing them from doing that they’re just choosing not to.”

She said it would be ideal if they could do a batch dismissal of the cases, but if the court’s computer system wouldn’t allow it, she said it would still be relatively easy for city prosecutors to dismiss large amounts of cases. 

“Because we’re trying to figure out how to get all these cases cleared out, and it would go a lot faster if they could do a batch like that,” she said. “But it doesn’t take that long to click a button. Even if you’re dealing with 11,000 cases, if you’re just having to click the button over and over — it’s something they could do.”

But lawyers in the City Attorney’s Office don’t appear to think it would be that simple. At the Criminal Justice Committee meeting, Ford suggested that the office felt the best way to dismiss cases would be for attorneys to file motions to quash in each individual case. That would require the court to assign public defenders to thousands of cases, which judges say they aren’t sure they have the authority to do without first determining that a defendant was indigent. 

“The correct avenue would definitely be a motion to quash,” Demetrie Ford said at the meeting. “But then, how do we do that, if we are looking at tens of thousands of motions to quash? One — who argues them? Who represents the defendant?” 

He also said that he had questions about which specific cases the court should look at. 

“And we also have to look at the type of charges that we want to look at removing or dismissing. Do we look at the DWIs? Do we look at the batteries? Do we look at the gun charges? Or do we look at repeat marijunana offenders? So all of those things are things that I had a concern with.”

Ford said he did think the outstanding warrants could be “easily resolved,” however, “if the Municipal and Traffic Court judges decide en banc to remove those attachments and warrants out of the system.” 

But Judge Early said that he had some questions about whether or not it would be legal or ethical to recall thousands of warrants without review. And even if they did, he said, the cases wouldn’t just go away. 

“Let’s assume I recall all the attachments tomorrow, and I’ve got the seven judges to come to a conclusion that legally and ethically we have the authority to do so. And the city attorney’s office doesn’t want to do anything about it — well then they just sit there,” he told The Lens.

“So I mean, it’s not resolved and the problem. But it would be a step I guess.”

Early said he thought the best option would be for the city council to pass an ordinance that makes the resolution they passed last year  into a binding law that instructs the judges and the city attorney to dismiss certain cases and recall outstanding warrants. He said that an ordinance might give the City Attorney “cover” to dismiss the cases outright.  

“You know, I think anybody who’s dealing with this issue, quite frankly, would love to see them go away,” Early said. “But the judges don’t want to get in trouble doing it. And the city attorney doesn’t want to get in trouble doing it.”

Keith Lampkin, a spokesperson for City Council President and Criminal Justice Committee Chair, said Williams was currently working with the actors involved to draft an ordinance. 

“There is no way we can — nor  should — deal with these cases one case at a time,” Williams said at the meeting. 

Comments from judges raise ‘alarm bells’

It’s not just the backlog of cases that is raising concerns at Municipal Court. The watchdog group Court Watch NOLA has been monitoring proceedings of the court via Zoom in recent months, and have overheard comments made by judges and their staff that the group feels undermine due process, transparency, and citizen trust in the court.

In one instance early this summer, Municipal Judge Mark Shea told a defendant who had multiple outstanding attachments that “If it weren’t for COVID I would lock you up.” In another Shea’s minute clerk told a defendant’s attorney that they should tell their client “not to steal anymore, because they are not very good at stealing stuff.” 

Following the latter comment, Shea checked with the court reporter to make sure that it was not on the record.

In another instance in July, Judge Joseph Landry asked an attorney whether or not a defendant in front of him was “the trick or the pimp.” 

In an email to all the municipal court judges, the city attorney, and public defenders, Court Watch said that the comments — which were either directed at or overheard by defendants — were “inappropriate” and raised “alarm bells.” 

“What’s most problematic for me is the notion of procedural fairness, and also the presumption of innocence,” said Simone Levine, director of Court Watch NOLA. “So if you’re talking about whether somebody is a trick or a pimp, then you’ve already assumed that the individual was guilty or not guilty before, you know, they’ve been given an opportunity for due process.” 

Levine laid out the broader concerns about the comments of her organization in the email.

“The basic concept behind procedural fairness is that when defendants, victims and witnesses are treated fairly by system players (such as judges, clerks, prosecutors, public defenders) they have a healthier respect for the law and a greater likelihood to follow the law, regardless of the outcome of their case,” she wrote. “Conversely, if defendants, victims and witnesses are treated disrespectfully by system players, they will often gain a disrespect aimed toward all judges, the court, and law and order in general. Study after study have documented this phenomena.”

Levine also said that when a judge strikes his or her own comments from the record, defendants can’t use them to try to make the case that their due process was denied in a potential appeal. 

But she also said that it set up a double standard.

“When you have a court that is able to prejudice a proceeding or cause disrespect to a defendant, and that record is not allowed to be made — essentially disappears — then the message that we broadcast to a defendant or a member of the community is there’s different rules that we follow that you can’t have the privilege of following yourself. We operate from a different playbook than you do,” she said.

Darin Browder, who is a Chapter Development Specialist at Court Watch NOLA, and the one who actually overheard the comments, said it was the striking from the record that initially raised concerns for him.

“That’s actually what really, really, really made me say, ‘Wait a minute,’ right?” he told The Lens. “At this point, they know it’s bad. And now they’re going to pull it off the record.” 

In an email to the Lens, Judge Shea said he took Court Watch’s concerns seriously. 

“My court and my staff take seriously all comments considered insensitive or inappropriate; we are committed to the respectful and fair treatment of all defendants and others who attend court. I have spoken to my staff and stressed the importance of continuing to treat everyone fairly and respectfully.” 

Judge Landry said in an email to The Lens that his comment inquiring whether or not a defendant was “the trick or the pimp” was made in the “context of attempting to determine the defendants’ need for available services or referral.”

“Municipal & Traffic Court sees cases involving prostitution and sex workers,” he wrote. “It is important to attempt to learn if the defendant is a willing or unwilling participant, if the defendant is part of a larger enterprise, and/or other factors.”

He also said that the inquiry “usually through private conversations with court staff or with the defendant’s counsel,” but that has now become difficult due to the fact that proceedings are no longer in person. 

“Learning the many features of teleconferencing is continuing,” he said. “An important feature to be learned is how to hold private conferences with staff or sidebars with attorneys.” 

“More education and experience with the use of Zoom is needed.”

Judge Early told The Lens he thought the comments were “cherry picked” and defended the integrity of the judges at the court. He pointed to specialty courts such as mental health and homeless courts that have tried to address community needs. 

But Lauren Anderson said the comments compound the problem of the case backlog, because when defendants are treated poorly and don’t trust the system, they are less likely to come to court.

“The judges and the city attorneys have wanted to portray this as a non issue, because people can just walk in off the street and get cases dealt with,” she said. “But for our community members who have spent their entire lives coming in and out of that building, that’s not what they’ve seen. When they come in, they have somebody dress them down, they have somebody attack their livelihood, they have somebody make them feel like they are less than nothing.”

She said that changing those perceptions could help mitigate the problem.

“But if they actually saw a shift in the culture of that court, and if they actually saw that, when they did come in, they were treated fairly. They were spoken to with respect, they were treated like human beings, they might be way more inclined to come in and deal with these cases, instead of letting this backlog happen.”

*Correction: An earlier version this article misreported that Lauren Anderson said it would be relatively easy for judges to clear old cases. She said it would be relatively easy for the City Attorney to clear old cases. Judges do not have the authority to clear old cases outright.

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...