Baton Rouge to hold “amnesty day” for misdemeanor warrants while officials continue to debate jail, other alternatives _lowres

Advocate file photo by James Chance -- The Baton Rouge City Courthouse opened its doors in 2006 as part of an amnesty program encouraging those charged with misdemeanors such as criminal offences and traffic violations to clear outstanding bench warrants.

After tensions between some East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council members and District Attorney Hillar Moore III about how to approach Baton Rouge’s long backlog of misdemeanor and traffic warrants, city officials have decided to host an “amnesty day” for people to come forward without fear of arrest.

Judges from both the 19th Judicial District Court and City Court will be available on Dec. 5 to meet with people who have outstanding traffic violations, Moore said. Judges are prepared to waive traffic fees and put aside arrest warrants on traffic violations to look for alternative ways to pay dues, including community service and reduced payments, he said.

But the judges have not yet decided whether people with warrants on misdemeanors beyond traffic violations can seek relief at this amnesty day, Moore said. They likely will answer that question next week.

“It’s a trial run,” Moore said. “We hope people take advantage of it.”

Officials have scheduled the day to clear records at a time when Moore, other law enforcement leaders and Metro Council members are locked in an ongoing battle about the idea of opening a misdemeanor jail to target people who have racked up multiple warrants.

The parish’s long list of 160,000 outstanding warrants — about 60 percent are for traffic violations — includes many repeat offenders. Moore has advocated opening a small jail facility in the basement of City Court for two-week periods, something he said will be a strong deterrent to encourage people to take care of their warrants.

The jail would be filled by people rounded up by law enforcement, something the parish has done twice before, in 2011 and 2012. Officials have said they targeted people with warrants for more-serious misdemeanor offenses, such as domestic violence.

But some Metro Council members have chafed at the idea, saying the people who will end up in the jail are likely to be low-income people with traffic violations, folks who could be ignoring their warrants simply because they can’t afford to pay.

“We’ve got to discuss how to take care of business without locking them up,” Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said during a meeting last month.

Since the council this fall balked at moving forward with the jail — which previously has won support and would be financed through a fee levied by parish judges — some have come forward with alternative ideas.

Constable Reggie Brown, who would have run the facility but has withdrawn his support for the jail, instead proposes hiring five new deputies for his staff to create a 24-hour warrant verification system that would assist officers in making more arrests outside of business hours. That idea, however, also has received some pushback.

Moore, who continues to push for the misdemeanor jail, said the amnesty opportunity is an “olive branch” to people who haven’t come to court.

“No one wants to put anyone in jail on traffic or misdemeanor offense unless they deliberately disobey the rules,” he said.

But he isn’t optimistic it will make a big dent in the warrant backlog, estimating at least 100 people might show up, although he hoped even more will take advantage of the opportunity. Moore said if the judges are overwhelmed, people will receive “amnesty rain checks” that allow them to come to the courthouse for a limited period of time after amnesty day to address the tickets, again without fear of being arrested.

Moore said if the initial amnesty is successful, he would like to hold more across the city to give everyone the chance to address their warrants without arrest.

Mayor Pro Tem Chandler Loupe, who also backs the misdemeanor jail, said the amnesty should be coupled with moving forward with the jail, saying he has encouraged the DA to bring the concept back before the council.

“Offering amnesty for people who can and are willing to pay tickets and then following that up with direct enforcement is the approach we should take,” Loupe said.

Loupe rejected the idea that people could be failing to show up at City Court because of fears of being jailed because they can’t pay. He said the court offers alternatives to fines.

Instead of moving forward with the jail, Brown said city officials should look at his idea to beef up his office. He wants to hire five new constable deputies who could do warrant verification around the clock, which he believes would cost $245,000 annually.

Right now, the Constable’s Office is open only 40 hours a week, from Monday through Friday.

If an officer pulls over a traffic violator in the evening or on a weekend and they see a city court warrant on their record, they have to verify it with the Constable’s Office to ensure it’s valid and outstanding.

But if it’s not regular office hours, officers have to bring in someone on-call to come into the office to find the warrant, so officers often let the offender go.

“We work 40 hours,” Brown said, “leaving 128 hours in the week uncovered in terms of warrant verification.”

He said when those deputies aren’t verifying warrants, they also could be conducting research on warrants to toss out old warrants for people who have died or putting aside warrants for those already in prison for other felony crimes.

“In one year’s time, if you give it a chance, there will be a 20 percent reduction in misdemeanor warrants,” Brown said.

Brown said he has a staff of 39 deputies. He said he can allocate only a single deputy on his staff to tracking down people with outstanding misdemeanor warrants or people who have missed court, though officials say this task is among his main assignments.

Brown said his staff is tied up providing security for the City Courthouse, serving eviction notices and providing transport for prisoners going between the 19th Judicial District Court and City Court.

Brown requested the funds for the new deputies in the 2016 budget, but that was denied by Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration as it prepared its proposed budget. Finance Director Marsha Hanlon said the administration would prefer the Constable’s Office handle warrant verification with an automated system.

Loupe also said he doesn’t support directing more money to the constable, saying he believes the problem started with that office.

“That’s his sole purpose is to execute outstanding warrants, and how he let 160,000 outstanding warrants build up — I just don’t understand,” he said.

While the city has declined to allocate more resources to the Constable’s Office so far, Brown said he would like to tap the fund created by the state Legislature for the misdemeanor jail. That fund holds more than $680,000.

But Moore said the Legislature designated the money specifically for a misdemeanor detention facility.

Regardless of how the jail turns out, Brown agrees the amnesty is a good idea.

“I would encourage everyone to participate,” Brown said. “It could be a good help if it does work. We can look back and evaluate it.”

People who want to take care of their traffic tickets will be able to do so from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m Dec. 5 at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, 4000 Gus Young Ave.