If Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has his way, people charged with first-time marijuana possession in New Orleans would still be in big trouble, but handling their cases might be a lot less trouble for the city’s strapped criminal justice system.
Cannizzaro is trying to build support for a proposal to move misdemeanor, first-offense marijuana charges from Criminal District Court to the city’s Municipal Court.
He argues this change could relieve the caseload in criminal court and allow prosecutors and police to focus on felony cases.
“In Criminal District Court right now, we have approximately 2,100 open cases. About one-third of those cases involve simple possession of marijuana,” Cannizzaro told members of the New Orleans City Council when he first outlined his proposal. “If those cases could be removed to Municipal Court, obviously it would allow for our resources to be redirected to dealing with the more serious charges in the Criminal Court.”
He asked the council for a city ordinance that would change these cases to violations of city code, which could thus be prosecuted by the City Attorney’s office in Municipal Court. Such an ordinance would give police the option of arresting these small-scale marijuana offenders or issuing a summons to appear in Municipal Court. Under current state law, police must arrest anyone caught with marijuana. Officers then bring them to Parish Prison to await a bond hearing. Suspects who can’t post bail usually stay in jail for days before they are officially charged.
Cannizzaro explained that under his proposal “many of these people could be given essentially a traffic ticket and a summons to show up in court to handle their marijuana charge.”
The proposal is controversial and it’s particularly unpopular with judges at Criminal District Court. They deny that first-time marijuana cases clog their courtrooms and they believe the cases should remain under their jurisdiction. After Cannizzaro’s request to the City Council, a group of these judges issued a news release expressing their opposition “for public safety and constitutional reasons.”
Cannizzaro has maintained that the change he seeks would simply help the criminal justice system run more efficiently. The maximum sentence for a first-time marijuana possession charge is six months jail time and a $500 fine, and that would be unchanged under his proposal.
“I am not here advocating for the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in any way whatsoever,” he says. – I.M.