After he was accused of writing himself a fraudulent check for $1,800, Joshua Williams spent five months in Parish Prison last year.
That might not be an unusually long time for a convicted thief to remain in jail, but Williams, now 26, hadn’t been convicted. In fact, he did his months in Parish Prison without ever being charged. He eventually was told that he would not be charged after 152 days — more than double the time limit set out in state law for prosecutors to decide whether to charge an inmate with a crime.
Williams is not the only Baton Rouge inmate to serve excessive jail time under state law before East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III’s office made a decision on his case. A review of recent 19th Judicial District Court cases by The Advocate found 19 inmates arrested since January 2013 who sat in jail for as long as six months until they were charged or released without charges, much longer than the 45-day or 60-day time limits for almost all crimes. The defendants usually were kept waiting even after they filed court motions from the jail in an effort to speed up the outcomes of their cases.
These lapses in prompt charging appear rare, but the delays left defendants in legal limbo, typically with no one to advocate on their behalf.
“It disturbs me,” state Public Defender Jay Dixon said when shown the cases. “This shouldn’t happen.”
Representatives of the various law enforcement offices in Baton Rouge emphasized that these cases were all exceptions, saying the process typically works smoothly.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Dumaine said defendants aren’t forgotten. Generally speaking, defendants weren’t charged timely if, for some reason, the DA’s Office didn’t receive a police report within the normal time frame.
Moore said his office tries to keep an eye on the time limits. “Our goal and intent is to never have anyone pass their date that the law imposes on them to be charged or released,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to stay in jail beyond that time.”
Waiting without charges
Williams was not the only one who languished behind bars for months, only to have his charges dismissed altogether. There also was Melvin Brumfield, 38, who was accused of battery of a police officer when he allegedly spat on a sheriff’s deputy in a police cruiser. He also was accused of intentional exposure to the AIDS virus because he told the deputies he had HIV, though he said later in an interview he is HIV-negative and never said anything like that.
After 108 days in jail because he couldn’t post a bail amount of $6,500, Judge Trudy White ordered Brumfield released on April 29, 2013. The DA’s Office said the arrest report was missing from the Sheriff’s Office.
There also was Brice Poole, now 25, who waited 63 days — three days over the limit — before he was told in August 2013 that he would not be charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. The alleged victim could not be located.
And there was Ryan Haley, 36, who waited three months in jail, twice as along as the time limit for somebody facing a misdemeanor, before he was charged with simple battery in October 2013 for a domestic assault. The charges ultimately were dismissed in court, as the alleged victim in that case also could not be located.
Katie M. Schwartzmann, a New Orleans-based attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, called the cases “incredibly alarming.”
“The state just can’t disappear someone into a parish jail without levying criminal charges against them,” Schwartzmann said. “This is really basic to our system of justice and how it’s supposed to work.”
Efforts to reach inmates named in this story were largely unsuccessful, with the lone exception of Brumfield, who when reached by phone in November, said: “I don’t want to think about the past. The more you think about the past, it makes you angry.”
As part of defendants’ speedy trial rights, Article 701 of Louisiana’s criminal procedure code spells out how long an arrested person can spend in jail without actually being charged with a crime. The limits are: 45 days for a misdemeanor, 60 days for a felony and 120 days for any offense that would result in automatic life in prison or death, which under Louisiana law is reserved for murder and aggravated rape.
After those time limits, an accused person is supposed to be released without bail to await the results of his case from outside a jail cell, unless prosecutors can show “just cause” for the delay.
But there is no sole agency responsible for tracking defendants once they are booked, according to Casey Rayborn Hicks, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the Parish Prison. She said, though, that the Sheriff’s Office recently started to upgrade its computer systems to prevent delays.
Instead, the criminal justice system relies on every cog — from police and prosecutors, to public defenders, to judges sitting on the bench and the jail — to do its part. But the system struggles with volume, with police arresting about 20,000 people annually.
Even district judges aren’t required to make sure the defendants who appear before them for bond settings end up charged in a timely manner, according to Judge Donald Johnson, who oversees a criminal division in the 19th Judicial District Court.
“It’s not the court’s responsibility unless the court wants to be proactive,” Johnson said. Policies vary from judge to judge. For his part, Johnson brings back the inmates he sees on initial appearance to make sure no case is forgotten.
Judge Louis Daniel said he issued a standing order to the prosecutors in his section earlier this month to let him know of any cases that are waiting past a charging deadline.
But Judge Mike Erwin said that when it comes to keeping track of defendants, “I don’t do anything because that’s the DA’s responsibility.”
To form a policy on this issue across all of the district’s judges, a majority — eight out of 15 — would have to vote on a rule to that effect.
Missing report delays case
Anthony DeCuir Jr., 50, was jailed March 27 on suspicions of starting a fire in a vacant home and still was waiting to be charged six months later, unable to post a $10,000 bail, court records show.
The delay came from miscommunication. The DA’s Office sent queries to the Baton Rouge Fire Department, asking for the information it needed to charge him with arson, but did not get that report for several months, Dumaine said.
An investigator with the Fire Department, Errol Taylor, said it wasn’t clear what happened in DeCuir’s case but added, “We make every effort to get paperwork to them in a timely manner.”
Meanwhile, for reasons that weren’t clear, the Public Defender’s Office also did not act on DeCuir’s case for months, though they had a record of him from the time he was booked, said Mike Mitchell, head of the East Baton Rouge Public Defender’s Office.
All but one of the 19 defendants identified by The Advocate filed court motions from jail, on their own, in an attempt to get their cases recognized.
For six of those 19 inmates, those motions resulted in release.
The rest of the defendants ended up charged. They either remain in jail with their cases undecided or have pleaded guilty to time they already had served. For some, their stays in jail were complicated by parole revocations prompted by the most recent arrest. One was being kept on a hold from federal immigration officials. But, despite these complications, state law requires that all be charged within the required time frame.
DeCuir was one of those who stayed. He filled out a 701 motion, but after receiving the motion, prosecutors charged him, and he remains in jail. His next hearing is scheduled for April 14.
Prosecutors also eventually charged Phillip Zito, 36, in October with unauthorized entry of a home in Baker, after he waited more than four months to hear about his case. He remains in jail on a $10,000 bail.?
And in June 2013, the DA’s Office charged Terrance Ramirez, 31, after a six-month wait, although the DA’s Office emphasized he would not have been eligible for release. He is accused of extortion and cocaine possession stemming from a case that involves Clerk of Court’s Office employees who allegedly stole cocaine from an evidence locker. The DA’s Office said the delays were due to waiting on grand jury indictments and lab tests.
It is unclear why the Public Defender’s Office didn’t intervene in cases after defendants weren’t charged timely. But Mitchell noted that each of the parish’s 44 public defenders who handle felonies have a caseload of about 300 clients. That means, at times, a public defender may not review a case until a couple months after a defendant is first booked into jail, though he added the turnaround is usually shorter, within a few weeks.
“We’re underfunded, understaffed, and ... the attorneys are forced to handle caseloads much larger than they would if they were in the private arena,” he added.
The way the Article 701 time limits are handled in New Orleans is a stark contrast to Baton Rouge. Defendants at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court are routinely brought to court magistrates for “show cause” hearings on the last day when a charging decision should be made by the district attorney.
Those hearings became a source of embarrassment for the criminal justice system in the years after Hurricane Katrina. Disconnects between the Police Department and DA’s Office led to thousands of accused offenders, including a few arrested for violent crimes, being “701-ed” out of jail when prosecutors didn’t have a decision ready on whether to charge defendants.
Public outrage followed. Police and prosecutors streamlined their procedures and followed cases more actively, said Dwight Doskey, a former New Orleans public defender who worked during and after Katrina. The issue has since become “virtually nonexistent,” said Rafael Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans.
701 as ‘tickling device’
Dixon, the state public defender, complained that a 701 motion always can be answered by just charging the defendant. Even if the charges arrive weeks after the motion, Dixon said prosecutors don’t face any consequences.
That means Article 701 is little more than a “tickling device” for a district attorney to realize that a case needs action, Dixon said.
But Johnson, the judge, and Dumaine, the East Baton Rouge prosecutor, said it is up to defendants to guard their rights, ensuring a motion is filed for their cases to be heard.
“Every right in this country you have to assert,” Dumaine said.
But Mitchell, the public defender, disagreed. “They’re all a case of injustice,” he said. “If (any) one of these people are innocent and can show it, they are serving time that no innocent person should have to serve. Even if these cases are dismissed, these people have been harmed. And certainly their families suffer as well.”
Follow Daniel Bethencourt on Twitter, @_dbethencourt.