NEW ORLEANS, LA – A strange legal conundrum is ongoing in New Orleans, regarding suspects accused of being in possession small amounts of narcotics.
Essentially, suspects allegedly in possession of a small amounts of drugs can expect to be arrested and go to jail – but only for a brief period.
That’s because while the police superintendent will continue instructing his officers to enact arrests for minor drug possession, the newly elected District Attorney has already confirmed that he’s going to refuse a majority of low level drug possession cases.
New Orleans DA Jason Williams has said he'll refuse most low-level drug possession charges, but the NOPD says it will "continue to make arrests as necessary."
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It’s already common knowledge in the New Orleans area that the Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams has confirmed that his office, under his direction, has no intention to pursue a majority of petty drug offenses in the realm of possession charges.
However, drug possession is still illegal in that neck of the woods, which is why New Orleans Police Superintendent Sean Ferguson says the NOPD will continue to arrest alleged offenders accused of such:
“I do not have the authority to run the District Attorney’s Office. I run the New Orleans Police Department.”
“We will continue to make arrests, but decisions that are made after those arrests are made, it is up to their due process that each individual is entitled to. We as a department will continue to make arrests as necessary.”
This means that many individuals arrested for narcotics possession will suffer the inconvenience of being arrested, but realistically won’t have to endure any potentially serious consequences.
Under a new policy set forth by District Attorney Williams, prosecutors within his office have been instructed to refuse all low level drug possession charges that can be construed as intended for one’s personal use.
The only exception of this personal use instruction by the DA is for alleged offenders that were found in possession of fentanyl or heroin of any amount. This means that cases involving small amounts of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and various pills won’t get prosecuted under District Attorney Williams’ watch.
The rationale for still prosecuting cases involving heroin and fentanyl, according to the DA’s office, is because the two drugs are both intricately linked to the increase of fatal overdoses in New Orleans.
From a national perspective, according to the National Institutes of Health, fentanyl fatal overdoses have skyrocketed in recent years – which likely has much to do with the invariably high potency of the drug.
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First Assistant District Attorney Bob White commented on the DA’s office particular attention toward heroin and fentanyl possession cases, saying the following:
“The DA’s office is sensitive to the issue of addiction and bears that in mind in prosecutorial decision-making.”
“The rising number of overdoses have absolutely created a public health crisis and this office has to use everything within our means to mitigate the damage from the drug on our community. These cases deserve serious intervention.”
Dr. Arwen Podesta, a New Orleans-based psychiatrist that treats substance abuse and had served on DA Williams’ transition team, also reaffirmed that cases involving heroin and fentanyl do command special attention:
“The level of risk with those drugs does, in my opinion, merit a carveout, and it allows in my opinion a more serious ability to divert or move into the very advantageous drug court.”
The new policy regarding low level drug possession charges does not mean that every instance where a suspect is allegedly in possession of small amounts of narcotics will be completely off the hook, as the DA’s office said drug possession charges of any kind will be prosecuted if they are linked to other serious offenses.
But with the NOPD still committed to enacting arrests for all alleged drug possession cases, some individuals within the community are critical of the police department continuing to pursue these arrests.
Vera Institute Associate Director Sarah Omojola happens to be one of these very critics:
“The DA’s policy is really a step in the right direction, but it’s only going to work if police stop making arrests for low-level drug charges.”
“People are going to be inserted into the criminal legal system, which has a lot of related consequences.”
Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, is neither directly critical of the DA’s office or the NOPD specifically in this matter.
Rather, Hessler would prefer to see both the DA’s office and the police department come to a “unified” approach on the matter due to his concern that current practices could send “mixed signals” to rank-and-file officers:
“I think it’s confusing to them, it’s somewhat demoralizing. I would like to see at some point in the future, for the officers’ sake, that the department and the District Attorney’s Office become unified.”
Keith Humphreys, who serves as a professor at Stanford University in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department, says that the approach of the district attorney’s office is somewhat of a benefit to taxpayers.
The reason being, according to Humphreys, is that the “added penalty of prosecution” for those dealing with substance abuse issues doesn’t really hold any “deterrent value” in drug possession/use instances:
“If addicted people are still getting arrested and booked into jail, the added penalty of prosecution would not make any difference to them.”
“In that sense you could say it’s a sensible policy because it’s refusing to spend taxpayer dollars on something with no deterrent value…anyone who can be deterred will already be so from the arrest, booking, and jailing of the police.”
The DA’s office has coined this approach to low level drug possession cases as part of a broader effort to reducing case backlogs while also affording an increased attention to more serious criminal offenses – such as violent crime.
First assistant DA White noted that this drug possession approach is a policy that is in place “for now,” which alludes to the possibility that it may just be a temporary effort by the DA’s office. However, White noted that it will ultimately be up to DA Williams to determine whether something of this nature will become a permanent policy.
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