Over 385,000 old cases that were languishing in Municipal and Traffic Court were dismissed by New Orleans City Attorney Sunni LeBeouf and court judges earlier this month — cutting the number of backlogged open cases in half. The cases dismissed were non-violent offenses that occurred prior to 2010. The vast majority were traffic violations.
The decision came after pressure from advocates — spearheaded by by the organization Stand With Dignity — who argued that open, low-level, municipal and traffic cases create an unnecessary burden on some of the most vulnerable individuals in the city, leading to cycles of debt, suspended drivers licenses, and job loss. Outstanding warrants related to those cases, called attachments, mean that individuals can be picked up by police and booked in jail — even when the underlying offense wouldn’t merit a prison sentence.
On April 6, LeBeouf sent a letter to Clerk of Municipal and Traffic Court Chris Sens informing him that her office wished to dismiss any cases from before 2010 that fit certain criteria. On May 28, the judges issued an order referencing the letter stating that that “for all cases meeting the foregoing criteria, all fees shall be waived, any outstanding attachments are hereby recalled, and the cas status shall be changed to ‘closed.’”
Then, on June 4, according to Chief Municipal Judge Sean Early, the court “hit a few buttons in the case management system, and those cases were closed.”
In a Wednesday tweet, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the move publicly, calling it a “subtle but important win for many of our underserved Orleans Parish residents whose attachments date back more than a decade for traffic and municipal offenses with no victims involved.”
“This is about removing barriers for our residents,” she said.
Attorneys with the public defenders office have advocated for a batch dismissals of cases like the one that occurred earlier this month, but lawyers with the City Attorney’s Office had previously indicated that it may not be possible and that each case would need to be handled individually.
According to Early, however, the judges and the City Attorney’s Office have been working on the issue for months now to determine which cases they could agree to dismiss. Once they settled on non-violent cases that were over 10 years old, they brought in an IT company to help them figure out how to do it logistically.
“They actually wrote software for our case management system,” Early said.
When all was said and done, the case load in Municipal and Traffic Court was reduced from 712,440 to 326,021, as of June 8. Over 95 percent of the cases dismissed were traffic cases.
It was not immediately clear how many of the cases had corresponding attachments, but Catherine Rieder with the Orleans Public Defenders Office said that there were “absolutely attachments related to these cases,” and that the dismissals would mean it would be less likely an old warrants would come back to haunt someone.
“There are times when people go in to get their NOPD background check for a job, and they end up finding out that they have a warrant out and they had no idea,” she said. “I mean, it’s common. I see it happen frequently. So I think this is the right step to start trying to make sure that — heaven forbid — someone get pulled over for a traffic violation end up in [jail] because they had a warrant they didn’t know existed.”
Public defenders are hoping this is just the beginning of a broader effort to deal with the backlog of municipal and traffic cases. Rieder said they were working with judges to look at any case that is over five years old.
Even without an agreement to dismiss a case from the City Attorney’s Office, judges can recall attachments and forgive outstanding fines and fees from cases that have already been adjudicated. Early said that conversations were continuing, calling it an “evolving situation.” But he warned that not all judges were as eager to continue toss out more recent cases.
“There are some judges, especially with the newer cases, who are concerned about rewarding people who just violate the law and then just disregard that court, and their order appear in court, etc., etc.” Early said. “But we’re still talking and meeting on it.”
In a written statement sent through the Mayor’s Office on Friday, LeBeouf said that given the volume of cases, locating defendants to inform them of their dismissals will be challenging. LeBeouf asked people who believe they may be included to call the Clerk of Court’s Office.
“Anyone who believes they potentially are included in this number should contact the Clerk of Court’s Office at Municipal and Traffic Court to request confirmation and documentation to present to the Office of Motor Vehicles for license reinstatement purposes if appropriate,” LeBeouf said.
This story has been updated with a statement from the City Attorney’s Office.