NOPD announces it will no longer issue citations for simple possession of marijuana, months after council’s pardon order

Update: This story originally appeared under the headline “Despite Council Order, People Still Required to Appear in Court for Simple Possession of Marijuana Citations”. Shortly after publication, the New Orleans Police Department announced changes to its simple possession policy, 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 – in recent months, despite a new law calling for automatic pardons for the offense.

“Why would you take the time to write the note if you know he’s going to be pardoned already?” Said City Councilor Helena Moreno, who sponsored the simple possession pardon order. “In my opinion, there is no real need for law enforcement anymore.”

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

“NOPD has revised our policy covering procedures related to simple possession of marijuana, and a new general order will come into effect on Sunday to comply with a new municipal ordinance,” NOPD spokesman Gary Scheets said in a statement. E-mail.

In August, the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to effectively remove all penalties for simple possession of marijuana in the city by automatically issuing “Pardons” to anyone accused of the crime in August. under city law, which means she wouldn’t. be required to pay a fine or even appear in court.

The law was due to come into force several months ago, on September 15 of last year. But according to public defenders in the Orléans parish, this week there were still dozens of simple marijuana possession cases pending in New Orleans city court, and people in New Orleans were turning up. still present for simple possession charges that arose after September 15.

At this point, it doesn’t look like any potential pardons are being granted at all.

Because the state still prohibits 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 possession law. the state – the order instead stated that anyone who received a subpoena for possession of marijuana would be “immediately pardoned”.

On the same day that city council passed the potential pardon order, it also passed a motion that sought to retroactively pardon every single marijuana conviction or open case since 2010 – which they estimated to be around 10,000 cases in total. But those pardons have yet to be processed, and so far, simple possession convictions still remain in people’s criminal records.

Future pardon legislation has been touted as a smart, albeit somewhat complicated, way to reduce fines, court appearances, and the collateral consequences associated with simple possession charges. These charges fell disproportionately on black residents. While blacks make up about 60% of the city’s population, they account for about 86% of marijuana summons issued by the New Orleans Police Department since 2010.

The new law was also intended to focus police resources on other more serious offenses, eliminating the need for additional paperwork or officers’ court appearances in simple possession cases. Under the order, when a person now receives a subpoena for simple possession of marijuana, it “will be deemed revoked and automatically void without the need for police intervention or appearance in court. the accused ”.

But Catherine Rieder, the guardian of the municipal court for public defenders, said the intention of the order is not being carried out.

“We see a lot of inconsistencies in the implementation of the ordinance and the granting of pardons,” she said in an email. “While we do not know if the NOPD immediately pardons people or if previous convictions are pardoned, we do know that a large number of people are still appearing in court. ”

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

“We constantly hear from people in the audience who are incredibly frustrated,” she said. “It’s like, ‘I’m calling the police and like no one shows up, but instead you spend three hours on a potty ticket?”

Although the department has vowed to end tickets 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 the revised Louisiana law and our officers are required to seize the marijuana as contraband,” Scheets said. “Once the marijuana is seized, officers still have to take the time to register it and consign it as property.”

Dozens of citations since the law came into force

Rieder, with the Office of Public Defenders, said that since September 15 “about 88 arrests or summons have been issued by the NOPD” for simple possession of marijuana, with no indication to those named that the charges were immediately pardoned or that ‘they would not be necessary. go to court.

“This is not what the legislation was intended to create and create unnecessary interaction in the justice system,” said Rieder. “Unfortunately, New Orleans people continue to face the negative collateral consequences of these lawsuits, and the inconsistency in the implementation of the ordinance is jeopardizing the progress this legislation was intended to make.”

Before 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 in question regarding potential pardons for simple possession of marijuana,” the office said in a statement Monday. “The city attorney’s office has always and will continue to prosecute cases on the basis of the law as it is written.”

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

But under the order passed by the council, the city attorney should not be required to close the cases at all, as they should already have been pardoned. But so far, there doesn’t appear to be a mechanism in place for this to happen.

Moreno said she was frustrated with both the NOPD continuing to distribute citations, as well as the traffic and New Orleans City Court for not being more proactive in granting prospective and retroactive pardons. .

Chief Traffic and City Court Judge Sean Early last month said he was working with court staff to issue retroactive pardons, but did not answer questions about the role the court in granting potential pardons.

“If they need more advice from me, to tell them how to do it, well, that’s okay,” said Moreno. “We can work on this. But I just wish they’d alerted me early on that there were problems instead of just saying, “This is too hard.” We don’t know what to do.

Moreno said she had a meeting scheduled with officials from the municipal court next week.

“There is no excuse for not following the law, and the law is what the council recently voted on – that anyone charged with the offense of simple possession of cannabis be immediately pardoned,” Moreno said. “It is local law that should be followed by the police and the courts.”

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