Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s office says it is adopting a policy of refusing all charges for possession of small amounts of drugs — which they define as “an amount that is intended only for personal use” — with the exception of heroin and fentanyl. 

That means that while the New Orleans Police Department may continue to arrest individuals for small amounts of drugs, the DA’s office’s policy is not to prosecute them. The office said they had informed the NOPD about the policy, but “wouldn’t be able to speak to any decisions about NOPD’s plans to arrest or not arrest for certain offenses.” 

NOPD officials did not respond to questions from The Lens regarding their arrest practices.

The Lens first learned about the drug policy through a public records request for new policy directives since Williams took office in January. 

Emails between an assistant district attorney in the screening division and the DA’s first assistant, Bob White, suggested that the office has made the decision to stop prosecuting most low-level drug offenses.

On March 25, an ADA in the office’s case screening division sent an email to White asking to clarify the policy for drug charges.

“I keep getting questions and I want to be consistent and accurate,” Paige Cline wrote in the email. “Standalone MJ will be refused, correct? These include 2nd, 3rd, 4th offenses? (We don’t see many of these at all). Drugs (cocaine, meth, pills) in small amounts will be refused, correct? I am not comfortable with refusing heroin or fentanyl in any amount- unless it is residue.”

White responded: “Yes. For now. All of the above”

On Tuesday, Williams’ office confirmed that the policy was in effect. The office also confirmed that arrests made on drug possession charges where the person has a prior conviction for the same charge would also be refused for everything but heroin and fentanyl. 

“Our goal is to keep the court’s docket clear of minor offenses to ensure that we are able to focus on serious crimes impacting our neighborhoods,” White said in an email responding to questions from The Lens regarding the policy.

Williams has repeatedly stated his intentions to reduce the number of drug cases that his office takes on and instead focus resources on violent offenses — particularly in light of a large backlog of cases that have stacked up on the criminal court dockets since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the suspension of jury trials.

Last month, the Lens reported that during his first month in office, WIlliams dismissed over 400 cases — including over 700 individual charges — that were being pursued under his predecessor, Leon Cannizzaro. Fifty-five percent of the dismissed cases were drug related, according to the office.

Previously, Williams had only publicly stated that he would refuse all low-level marijuana charges — not the other drugs such as cocaine and meth.

Danny Engelberg, chief of trials at the Orleans Public Defenders Office applauded the new policy. 

“When it comes to health and community safety, treating drug possession cases outside of the criminal system is the right thing to do, and what New Orleans has asked for in the most recent election” Engelberg said. “For years drug cases clogged up court dockets and filled our jails.”

White said the decision to continue prosecuting heroin and fentanyl possession stemmed from consideration of the effects of the opioid epidemic and a dramatic increase in overdose deaths across the state. 

“Fentanyl trafficking from the eastern and western seaboard has been driving a spike in opioid overdoses, through the country but especially in port cities and destinations locals like New Orleans,” White said. “The rising number of overdoses have absolutely created a public health crisis and this office has to use everything within our means to mitigate the damage from the drug on our community. These cases deserve serious intervention.”

White did not elaborate on what that “serious intervention” would entail, but Williams has been vocal about his desire to expand the office’s diversion program and connect individuals with drug treatment services. 

The DA’s office was not immediately able to provide numbers on how many drug possession charges it had refused since Williams took office. 

Other policies implemented under Williams watch include never using or threatening the habitual offender statute, never requesting warrants to be issued for failures to appear via Zoom — at least until the end of COVID restrictions, and getting approval from leadership if a prosecutor wants to request the revocation of a defendants probation, emails show.

In addition, the office will limit its use of procedural objections in post-conviction proceedings and will not take a position on parole or pardon applications. 

Engelberg said that the policy would have a positive impact in terms of reducing profiling and discrimination by law enforcement.

“What we also see is people arrested for these types of charges — it depends on how much money you have in your pocket, and how you look, and where you live,” Engelberg said. “And it’s important to not criminalize drug possession cases as one small first step to addressing our chronic racial disparities in the criminal legal system.”

Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, said that he was not aware of Williams’ policy with regards to drug possession charges, but that in general the association supported the discretion of DAs to make policy decisions in accordance with the law.

“As long as whatever policy he is implementing is within the bounds of the law and the procedures that define the district attorney’s discretion, we’re supportive of his discretion,” Lampert said. “Even if every DA is not supportive of every policy, we’re supportive of the ability to make those policy decisions — within the bounds of the law.” 

At an accountability forum hosted by the People’s DA Coalition last week, Williams said that he was an “outlier” among DA’s statewide and that he was encouraging the LDAA to “see things a little bit differently than they have in the past.” 

“But they respect the fact that my office is different,” he said. “And Orleans Parish is different.” 

Engelberg said that so far the charges the public defenders office have been seeing since Williams took office are consistent with the policy. 

“We are seeing a definite shift in focus from what we would call victimless crimes — or issues that are public health issues — and focusing more on serious cases,” he said. 

Nicholas 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...