Should the powers of New Orleans Municipal Court be expanded? It’s already happening. You just probably didn’t realizing it was going on.
It began a couple of years ago, in late January 2012. Mayor Mitch Landrieu dispatched letters to the judges of Criminal District Court and Municipal Court asking them to impose higher bonds for release in gun cases. Landrieu specifically pointed to a program initiated by Judge John Garvey in St. Louis, who began automatically requiring a $30,000 cash-only bond for youths arrested for illegally possessing firearms.
A cash-only bond is one where the accused must pay, in full, the total amount of the bond to secure his release. The offender can’t use a surety (a bail bondsman) and isn’t given the option of paying only a portion for a cash deposit bond (usually 10% of the total bond).
“This is about having an immediate consequence to a bad choice,” Landrieu declared in a subsequent press conference.
There were three problems with what Landrieu proposed. First of all, the Second Circuit held in State v. Golden, 546 So. 2d 501, 503 (La. App. 2 Cir. 1989), that it is unconstitutional for a judge to require a cash-only bond. Much to Landrieu’s chagrin, Missouri plays fast-and-loose with bail requirements compared with Louisiana. Judge Garvey’s scheme would be illegal here.
Secondly, the purpose of a bond in criminal cases is not, as Landrieu suggested, to impose “immediate consequences.” The presumption of innocence means that a bond is not a punishment, but a method of securing the appearance of the accused in court. Accordingly, while a judge may be able to impose massive bonds to send a message to alleged gun offenders, he’s not actually supposed to be doing so.
Thirdly, and most crucially, at the time Landrieu made his proposal, the maximum bond that could be imposed in Municipal Court was $10,000, a third of the amount of the bonds Garvey was issuing. This final problem, however, had a legislative solution.
Less than a month after Landrieu’s pronouncement, state Rep. Austin Badon filed House Bill 158, which would raise the allowable bond in New Orleans Municipal Court to $30,000. The bill was signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal and became effective on August 1, 2012. As a result, Municipal Court may now require a very high bond for very minor crimes.
Alone, this would be a single proposal that netted a single new law. However, we have since seen hints of a wider agenda.
The next indication came last June when the “Seven Essential Items” were released by a dubious coalition of neighborhood organizations urging revisions to New Orleans’ noise laws. The fourth “item” was to “pass state legislation to allow higher or unlimited fines.”
The Louisiana Supreme Court previously held in State v. Le Compte, 406 So. 2d 1300, 1304 (La. 1981), that a law cannot impose an unlimited fine (something the coalition ignored), but that still leaves open the possibility of “higher fines.” Presently, the maximum fine Municipal Court can impose is under state law is $500, which is certainly befitting of the minor crimes it normally handles.
This past month the Vieux Carre Property Owners and Residents Association (VCPORA) released responses from a questionnaire issued to candidates in the City Council At-Large runoff, and one of the questions was: “Would you support a council resolution to support a bill in the legislature to allow the City Council to increase fines for municipal violations from $500 (current cap), up to $5000?”
Both candidates indicated their support. The victor in Saturday’s runoff, Jason Williams, opined that he supported the proposal “in line with moving forward,” noting that “[a] $500 fine may mean nothing to some so this gives the council more teeth.”
Does this mean we’re moving towards a municipal fines ten times higher than they are now? Municipal Court judges have already been given authority to require bonds of $30,000. If these plans bear fruit, they will also be able to impose fines of $5,000. This is a sea change.
While this may seem esoteric to some, the issue here is actually rather simple: Municipal offenses are all misdemeanors, very minor crimes where jury trials are not provided. They don’t require high bonds or high fines because the offenses don’t merit them. Clearly, those with a wider agenda are unconcerned with fairness or proportion in individual cases. Rather, they simply want to give the city broader authority to punish people for minor offenses.
We aren’t having a debate over whether this is fair or justified, yet these developments would have a tremendous impact on the enforcement of municipal laws. When major changes begin to occur beneath the notice of most citizens, it’s unsettling to say the least.
I, for one, see no pressing need to expand the authority of Municipal Court judges and am concerned about potential consequences. Alas, for now it seems I am arguing with myself.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.