The cutest Internet video of the week from New Orleans was, inarguably, that of “disco cop.” NOPD Sgt. L.J. Smith was providing security at the Luna Fete light/art festival as electronic dance music brayed from a nearby DJ when he began enthusiastically dancing along with the crowd.
In a city beset by violent crime that has been braced with recurring police scandals, the sight of a cop stepping side-to-side and blowing his whistle in time with the music was a welcome diversion.
However, while I was watching the video, a seemingly trivial detail caught my eye. Sgt. Smith was visibly wearing a bright yellow Taser on his belt, as all New Orleans police have done since 2012. From that observation, a question came into my head: How is it legal for NOPD officers to carry Tasers when stun guns are generally banned in the City of New Orleans?
This past July, I wrote about New Orleans Municipal Code Sec. 54-339, an antiquated law providing, in pertinent part: “It shall be unlawful for anyone knowingly to . . . [s]ell, manufacture, purchase, possess or carry any . . . stungun[.]”
The key word here is “anyone.” Unlike most laws regarding possession of weapons, there is no exemption of any sort for law enforcement. NOPD officers are in the same legal position as Joe Blow Six-pack when it comes to their ability to legally carry a Taser.
All of this appears likely to change. A lawsuit was filed last month by local resident John Ford to challenge New Orleans’ stun gun ban. The suit cited a recent Supreme Court decision in which the Court held that the Second Amendment applies equally to non-lethal arms as it does to firearms, or as Ford’s attorney told reporters, “he could easily get a gun; he’d just rather not kill somebody.”
On Sunday, Ford’s attorney announced that a stipulation had been reached with the City regarding Mr. Ford’s request for a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the ordinance pending the outcome of litigation. Essentially, Ford would be permitted to purchase a stun gun, but the injunction would not extend to New Orleanians generally.
“Only 1 private citizen can legally carry a stun gun in New Orleans, for now,” read the headline of a Times-Picayune article regarding the stipulation.
However, since the stipulation only affects the enforceability of Sec. 54-339 vis-à-vis Mr. Ford, the law actually technically still remains in effect for all persons in New Orleans, including our own “disco cop.” It does not just apply to “private citizens.”
So just how does it come to be that all NOPD officers are required by department policy to carry a weapon that is illegal for any person to possess under municipal law? The answer is a simple one: public employees violate the laws they are supposed to be enforcing, even if they are not legally exempted from them, under the mistaken belief that they may do so in order to make their jobs easier.
The NOPD’s requirement that officers carry a prohibited weapon is one stark example of this phenomenon, but we’ve all seen more mundane cases. How many times have you seen a public vehicle parked illegally in the expectation that it won’t be ticketed? Heck, even the meter maids themselves will block traffic just to issue a ticket for an expired meter.
Likewise, how many times have you heard about public employees doling out special treatment to friends and family? “Do as I say, not as I do” seems to be the guiding motto of enforcement for the City of New Orleans.
As a strictly legal matter, the power to write law rests in the hands of the people, not in the conventions of those who enforce it. However, a practical matter, public employees will be correct about their favored status until we ordinary “private citizens” begin to exercise proper oversight of our public officials and hold them to account.
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.