Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New Orleans Might Make Marijuana a Misdemeanor

Marijuana case management debate divides DA, judges

by Gwen Filosa, The Times-Picayune
Monday August 17, 2009, 8:45 PM

Hoping to streamline clogged criminal dockets, Orleans Parish District
Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is trying to build support for his plan to move
misdemeanor marijuana possession cases from Criminal District Court to
Municipal Court.

Cannizzaro says the change would reduce by one-third the 2,100 cases
pending at the court, allowing his prosecutors to focus on more serious
crimes. Municipal Court cases are typically handled by the city
attorney's office.

But judges at the Tulane Avenue courthouse, where all sections now
handle first-possession marijuana cases alongside murders, rapes and
robberies, aren't buying the DA's argument that shedding the
misdemeanors would improve the criminal justice system. They deny that
their dockets are clogged by marijuana cases.

Immediately after Cannizzaro floated his proposal before the City
Council two weeks ago, the judges at Tulane and Broad put out a news
release saying they oppose the idea "for public safety and
constitutional reasons."

City Councilman James Carter met privately Monday with a band of
criminal justice players, including judges, the sheriff and Cannizzaro,
over the issue. Carter has asked the city attorney's office, which would
be responsible for taking over the cases, to review the proposal before
proceeding further.

"The city attorney is gathering all the information and she's going to
give me some recommendations, " Carter said.

Magistrate Judge Gerard Hansen, speaking for the judges, said removing
the marijuana cases from criminal court would only create more hassles
in the system, including delay of treatment for drug abusers.

Many times, Hansen said, a first-time marijuana bust is combined with a
more serious charge. Judges in the state court can keep better track of
those defendants than their counterparts in Municipal Court, he said.

"People don't come back to court" if given only a summons by police to
appear, Hansen added.

The maximum penalty for first-time possession of marijuana, regardless
of where the case is heard, is six months in jail and a $500 fine.
Offenders can do their time after appearing at Municipal Court instead
of at Tulane and Broad, Cannizzaro says.

In New Orleans, police officers arrest first-time marijuana possession
suspects and cart them to Central Lockup for booking into jail.

Cannizzaro calls that longtime practice a strain on the parish's prison

That's an issue Cannizzaro should take up with the Police Department,
several judges said, dismissing the idea that the marijuana misdemeanors
prevent them from getting on with murder trials.

"They don't clog up the docket, " said veteran defense attorney Jeffrey
Smith, who snapped his fingers to describe how long it takes to resolve
a typical first-time marijuana possession case. "It helps move cases, I

Smith said that if a defendant has a so-called "marijuana first" along
with a felony charge, prosecutors have more leeway to cut a plea deal.
"You get your conviction and you get rid of the marijuana first, " he

Marijuana firsts are known as consistent moneymakers for the judicial
coffers, since most defendants charged with the crime plead guilty,
agreeing to pay fines and fees rather than serving jail time.

A defendant charged with marijuana possession has only a right to trial
before a judge, not by jury. Most convicts seek expungements of their
record, another steady flow of income for Criminal District Court.

Several sections of court have "drug courts, " which are diversion
programs for first- and second-time offenders. Instead of prison time,
the offenders plead guilty and appear in court weekly for drug
screenings and progress reports.

"There is always revenue at stake, but that is not the main issue, "
said Hansen, a 30-year veteran of the bench. "We're not going to do
battle with the DA. We are happy to work with him. We don't have to
agree with him."

One prosecutor said "marijuana firsts" represent "about 20 percent of
the dockets, " but noted that several judges don't even hear the cases.

Keva Landrum-Johnson and Karen Herman are among the criminal court
judges who send the marijuana cases to the court's magistrate section if
the defendant chooses to fight the charge rather than plead guilty.

Still, it's clear that "marijuana first" cases dot the dockets of every
section of court. On a recent day, for instance, Judge Laurie White's
Section A had five such cases on a 17-page docket. In two of them, the
defendants faced additional drug charges, including possession of

Judge Frank Marullo's Section D docket had four "marijuana first" cases
on a 12-page docket, including one of a man additionally charged with
carrying a concealed weapon and being a felon in possession of a gun.

. . . . . . .

Gwen Filosa can be reached at gfilosa@timespicayu ne.com or 504.

http://www.nola. com/news/ index.ssf/ 2009/08/marijuan a_case_managemen t_deb\

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