REPORT: Court Watch NOLA releases Criminal District, Magistrate, and Municipal Courts 2020 report

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NEW ORLEANS — Court Watch NOLA discussed their findings, along with recommendations for the public officials that work in the Criminal District, Magistrate and Municipal Courts of New Orleans.

Court Watch NOLA continues to demand accountability, transparency, and fairness in ensuring the Orleans Parish Criminal Courts and the public officials within the courthouse are answerable to the people of Orleans Parish.

READ: 2020 COVID Annual Report Card on Orleans Parish Criminal District, Magistrate, and Municipal Courts

Transparency and Constitutional Rights Violations

For a month Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges refused public access to court proceedings, denying journalists and the public at large this fundamental constitutional right. Even after getting permission to access court proceedings by Zoom, court watchers had problems gaining access to individual Criminal District courtrooms, controlled by individual judges a total of 43% of the time and to Magistrate courtrooms 4% of the time. 

When attorney-client phone calls are recorded by Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman they are turned over to both the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office as well as placed in a large national database along with the phone calls made by inmates to their loved ones, and the names and addresses of those whom inmates call. This database is accessible to any law enforcement agency and hundreds of thousands of jails and prisons around the country. Securus, the company that runs the jail phones in Orleans Parish has previously been sued for millions of dollars for allowing these recorded attorney-client phone calls to be placed in this database. But Sheriff Gusman has relieved Securus of any litigation liability over $100 for collecting attorney-client calls recorded by the jail. This exposes Orleans Parish taxpayers to millions of dollars in potential litigation for violating constitutional rights.

Health

Court Watch NOLA found that Judges in Criminal District and Magistrate Court had 61 people arrested for failing to appear for court in 2020, after the governor’s stay at home order. Judges did this during a health pandemic while issuing contradictory orders whether the court was closed or open and with people often not having any idea if they had court or not. This when the jail was experiencing COVID rates over forty times the national average and it costs taxpayers $169 a day to house an incarcerated defendant. Municipal Court, which required defendants to appear in person after June 1st, with no Zoom alternative, issued 314 warrants for failure to appear during COVID 2020. 

The Police Department as well failed to take necessary precautions in protecting public health. The New Orleans Police Department refused to allow police officers the discretion to issue summons instead of arrests for non-violent state offenses, forcing City Council to pass a law to require police officers to do so in most state misdemeanors. Court Watch NOLA continues to call on Chief Ferguson to allow police officers the discretion to issue a summons ticket instead of issuing an arrest for non-violent, non sex, non-domestic felonies such as cocaine possession, failure to return a rental car and damage to property. 

Victim Rights

In 2020, there was a 44% increase in fatal shooting deaths. The City of New Orleans has provided no direct resources to crime survivors, to the groups providing direct services to victims, or to a witness protection program.

Court Watch NOLA found that although required to do so by law, Magistrate Court judges failed to ask defendants with an active domestic violence stay away order, if they owned firearms in at least 40% of the time. Also in 2020, although serially underreported, New Orleans saw an increase in hate crimes.

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