Credit: Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Update: This story was originally published under the headline “Despite council ordinance, people still forced to appear in court on simple possession of marijuana citations.” Shortly after publication, the New Orleans Police Department announced changes to its policy on simple possession, ending the practice of issuing citations for the offense.

The New Orleans Police Department has issued dozens of citations for possession of small amounts of marijuana — forcing people to appear in court to defend themselves — over the past several months, despite a new law calling for automatic pardons for the offense. 

“Why would you take the time to write the ticket if you know it’s already going to be pardoned?” said Councilwoman Helena Moreno, who sponsored the simple possession pardon ordinance. “There’s really no necessity for enforcement, in my opinion, anymore.” 

On Friday afternoon, shortly after this story was first published, a spokesperson for NOPD said that the department would implement a new policy this weekend where officers will “no longer issue citations for simple possession alone.”  

“NOPD has revised our policy covering procedures related to simple possession of marijuana, and new general order will go into effect Sunday to comply with a new municipal ordinance,” said NOPD spokesperson Gary Scheets, in an email.

In August, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed an ordinance intended to effectively remove all the penalties for simple possession of marijuana in the city by automatically issuing “prospective pardons” to anyone who was charged with the crime under city law, meaning they would not be required to pay a fine or even appear in court. 

The law was supposed to go into effect several months ago, on Sept. 15 of last year. But according to the Orleans Parish Public Defenders, as of this week there were still dozens of open simple possession marijuana cases in New Orleans Municipal Court, and people in New Orleans are still showing up on simple possession charges that occurred after Sept. 15.

At this point, it doesn’t appear that the prospective pardons are being issued at all. 

Because the state still outlaws simple possession, instead of legalizing possession in the city’s municipal code — which Moreno said would force police to charge the offense under the more punitive state possession law — the ordinance instead said that anyone who was given a summons for marijuana possession would be “immediately pardoned.” 

On the same day that the City Council passed the prospective pardon ordinance, it also passed a motion that was meant to retroactively pardon every simple marijuana conviction or open case since 2010 — which they estimated to be around 10,000 cases total. But those pardons have not yet been processed, and so far convictions for simple possession still remain on people’s criminal record. 

The prospective pardon legislation was pitched as a clever, if somewhat complicated, way of undercutting the fines, court appearances, and collateral consequences associated with simple possession charges. Those charges have disproportionately fallen on Black residents. While Black people make up about 60 percent of the city’s population, they account for about 86 percent of the marijuana summons issued by the New Orleans Police Department since 2010.

The new law was also meant to focus police resources on other, more serious offenses, by making any additional paperwork or court appearances by officers unnecessary in simple possession cases.  Under the terms of the ordinance, when a person now receives a summons for simple possession of marijuana, it “shall be deemed revoked and automatically void without need for any additional police action or court appearance of the accused.” 

But Catherine Rieder, the Municipal Court supervising attorney for the public defenders, said that the intent of the ordinance is not being carried out. 

“We are seeing a great deal of inconsistency with the implementation of the ordinance and issuing of the pardons,” she said in an email. “While we don’t know if NOPD is in fact immediately pardoning individuals or whether prior convictions are being pardoned, we do know there is a great number of people still coming into court.” 

Prior to the department’s late Friday announcement that it would suspend the issuance of citations for simple possession, Moreno criticized the NOPD for failing to develop a policy around the pardon law, which she called “problematic.”

“We’re constantly hearing from people in the public who are so incredibly frustrated,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I call the police and like nobody shows up, but instead you’re spending three hours on on a pot ticket?’”

Though the department pledged to end ticketing for the offense, the department spokesperson told The Lens on Friday that officers will still seize marijuana when they find it. 

“Marijuana remains an illegal substance under Louisiana revised statute law and our officers are obligated to seize marijuana as contraband,” said Scheets. “Once that marijuana is seized, officers must still take time to record and log it as property.”

Dozens of citations since law went into effect

Rieder, with the public defenders office, said that since Sept. 15 “approximately 88 arrests or summons were issued by NOPD” for simple possession of marijuana, with no indication to those cited that the charges were  immediately pardoned or that they would not be required to show up in court. 

“This is not what the legislation intended and creates unnecessary interaction in the court system,” Rieder said. “Unfortunately, New Orleanians continue to face the harmful collateral consequences of these prosecutions, and the inconsistency of the ordinance implementation is jeopardizing the progress this legislation intended to make.”

Prior to the holidays, only 25 of those 88 charges had been dismissed by New Orleans City Attorney Donesia Turner. 

“The City Attorney’s Office has dismissed 25 of the 88 cases that are in question as it relates to the prospective pardons for simple marijuana possessions,” the office said in a statement on Monday. “The City Attorney’s Office has always and will continue to prosecute cases based on the law as it is written.”

The office did not respond to follow up questions about how exactly they were interpreting the ordinance, or whether all marijuana cases would be ultimately dismissed. On Tuesday, after The Lens inquired about the open marijuana cases, the office dismissed 44 additional open simple possession cases, according to the public defenders. 

But under the ordinance passed by the council the city attorney should not be required to dismiss the cases at all, since they should have already been pardoned. But so far, there does not appear to be any mechanism in place to make that happen.

Moreno said she was frustrated by both the NOPD continuing to hand out the citations, and also with New Orleans Traffic and Municipal Court for not being more proactive about issuing both prospective and retroactive pardons.

Last month, Chief Judge of Traffic and Municipal Court Sean Early said that he was working with court staff to issue the retroactive pardons, but did not respond to questions about what role the court would play in issuing the prospective pardons. 

“If they need additional guidance from me, to tell them how to do it, well, then that’s fine,” Moreno said. “We can work on that. But I just wish they would have alerted me early on that there were issues instead of just being like, ‘It’s too hard. We don’t know what to do.’”

Moreno said that she has a meeting scheduled with municipal court representatives next week. 

“There are no excuses for not following the law, and the law is what Council recently voted—  that anyone charged with misdemeanor simple possession of cannabis is immediately pardoned,” Moreno said. “That is the local law which should be followed by police and the courts.”

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...