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.

Anyone with outstanding warrants for traffic violations in Baton Rouge will have the opportunity Saturday to clear the warrant, resolve the underlying fines and avoid a trip to jail.

The traffic bench warrant amnesty day will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center at 4000 Gus Young Ave. Judges will set aside bench warrants for unresolved traffic violations, allowing defendants to pay off the original fines — and will also consider waiving traffic fees and imposing alternative sentences, including community service or reduced payments, for those unable to pay off the citations.

“Our goal is not to arrest someone who wants to come in to take care of their business,” said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III. “If they come in, we’ll have their warrants recalled because they’ve appeared.”

Anyone with questions about possible outstanding warrants may call (225) 389-3182 or check the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office warrants website or the Baton Rouge City Court’s warrants website.

If successful, Moore and other officials said, they hope to repeat the amnesty program — either at the courthouse downtown or in other parts of the city — in an effort to clear up some of the city’s massive backlog of warrants without sending offenders to jail. Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, whose district includes the community center hosting Saturday’s amnesty event, said the program is the first time the courts have headed into neighborhoods to offer opportunities for residents to clear up violations.

“I think that we have to look at innovative ways to clear up the warrants, rather than locking people up,” Marcelle said. “We have to at least offer that opportunity.”

Officials had considered including warrants for other misdemeanor charges in Saturday’s amnesty day but ultimately chose to largely limit the program to misdemeanor traffic violations — although Moore said judges would likely work with those with additional outstanding warrants for other minor charges.

“People will be able to resolve the warrants, for the most part, without any kind of fear of being arrested,” Moore said.

The amnesty day comes amid political jousting in parish government over how to tackle the approximately 160,000 outstanding warrants, about 60 percent of which are for traffic violations, including many repeat offenders. A plan to open a small jail in the basement of City Court for those with misdemeanor warrants has generated controversy on the Metro Council.

Although Moore, a backer of the misdemeanor jail plan, said amnesty efforts will resolve some of those warrants, he wasn’t optimistic that amnesty programs alone could resolve the backlog.

“We’re in this position because we let this get out of hand for years and didn’t enforce warrants immediately,” Moore said. “Hopefully, all the work that’s gone into (Saturday’s amnesty program) on our part will show goodwill to try to get these things resolved. Eventually, we’re going to have to face the fact that there are a lot of people that aren’t willing to face their obligation.”

Marcelle, who’s been highly critical of proposals for a misdemeanor jail, said she’s hopeful that Saturday’s event will provide working people an opportunity to clear up outstanding legal issues without a trip to the courthouse during the workweek — and that the amnesty program will allow the courts to whittle away at the backlog of warrants without locking up minor offenders.

“My hope is that we can clear up a lot of the warrants and we won’t need a misdemeanor jail,” said Marcelle.