When it comes to driving drunk, the gaps in the New Orleans criminal justice system are wide enough for many arrestees to hurtle through repeatedly, even while hammered, according to a scathing report issued Wednesday by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office.
The 54-page report portrays the justice system for DWI cases as a disaster with blame to go around, costing the city potentially millions of dollars a year in addition to making the streets more dangerous.
It says New Orleans police use weak techniques for spotting drunk drivers; that city prosecutors come to court unprepared; and that case files disappear or frequently lack rap sheets for prior offenses that could lead to appropriately stiff sentences.
The review found that five in every six DWI cases with high blood-alcohol readings — calling for tougher sanctions — were downgraded, while one in five DWI cases was reduced to reckless operation of a vehicle. City attorneys offered plea bargains in most cases, the report found, with no guidelines for when it was appropriate to do so.
And more than 8,000 DWI cases appear to remain open from 20 years back or longer. In at least 40 open DWI cases, the defendants no longer drink and drive, because they’re dead, the report found.
The annual cost to the city for failing to hold drunken drivers accountable could be in excess of $4 million, the report found.
The IG acknowledges that a new case-management system in New Orleans Traffic Court should help solve some of the bad record-keeping, intentional or not, that has helped some drunken drivers slide. But it points to several other areas where the system falls well short of national standards.
Among them, the report finds that police commonly fail to bring video evidence of DWI stops to court. The report says a ranking officer in the traffic unit told investigators that it wasn’t required “and it would be a chore to provide it.”
The department, which made about 1,500 DWI arrests annually from 2010 to 2013, also doesn’t uniformly collect “Place of Last Drink” data to help plot out effective, state-funded DWI checkpoints.
And the NOPD missed the boat in failing to implement a “No Refusal” program, the report says. Such programs allow officers to force blood tests under a warrant if a driver refuses to submit to a breath test. The report cites a federal study that says 39 percent of Louisianians refuse breath tests, compared with 22 percent nationwide.
Jefferson Parish started a No Refusal program five years ago, the report says, resulting in an increase of drivers willing to take a breath test rather than face a needle. The blood tests also help in detecting illegal drugs.
In a published response to Quatrevaux’s findings, NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison defended the department’s vigilance with drunken-driving arrests, touting the use of radar, checkpoints and “saturation patrols,” along with city funding for increased State Police presence on highways.
Harrison said the department plans to implement a No Refusal program later this year. Harrison said the NOPD collects Place of Last Drink data but admitted it doesn’t analyze it, calling it “inconsistent and inaccurate.”
“When individuals provide this information, they are often unclear about the location or intentionally provide false information,” he wrote.
Harrison said a digital DWI arrest reporting system is in the works that should strengthen the transfer of cases to prosecutors and the court — a key complaint in Quatrevaux’s report.
Lapses in the system for shipping police accounts and other information to prosecutors and the courts are among the report’s most troubling findings.
The IG’s Office reviewed case files on DWI arrests from the first half of 2012, along with electronic records over a six-year period ending in 2012.
The report found no checks to see if every DWI arrest was entered into the system, and it says a Traffic Court employee who sorts booking and bond paperwork from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office often would take the documents home overnight before delivering it to the court. It was one example, the report says, of “Traffic Court’s informal approach to record keeping and the processing of DWI cases.”
Quatrevaux’s office said the slipshod system makes it easy for cases to be intentionally discarded before reaching city attorneys.
Even then, the report found, city attorneys who prosecute DWI cases often lacked arrest records showing earlier DWI arrests and convictions, leading some defense attorneys to have their clients quickly plead guilty before the earlier convictions could be discovered.
Removal of records from expunged cases made it impossible to analyze outcomes for thousands of defendants, the report says.
The records were so weak that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office in 2012 rejected 37 percent of felony DWI cases — those with two or more prior drunken-driving convictions — for lack of documentation, the report says.
Of the 6,700 cases that Quatrevaux’s office reviewed from 2007 to 2013, just 1.7 percent showed up as second-offense DWIs, in part because so many first drunken-driving offenses are downgraded, the report says.
Overall, the IG described a time-honored, swap-meet style atmosphere in Traffic Court, short on solid paperwork or established protocols.
“DWI cases floated passively through a system that was unable to distinguish between more serious and less serious cases and mete out punishment or behavioral modification efforts appropriately,” the report concludes. “Drivers with exceptionally high (blood-alcohol content) or previous DWI arrests were not necessarily treated differently from an ordinary first-time offender, even though repeat offenders and those with higher BACs are much more dangerous to public safety.”
Fixing the system, in part by implementing a recommended electronic citation system, presents “a challenge in New Orleans, where numerous Traffic Court practices reveal a disregard for professional standards and everyday failures of legal process.”
In a response letter, City Attorney Sharonda Williams disputed Quatrevaux’s allegation that city attorneys failed to screen DWI cases according to national standards.
Even so, the office will begin screening cases by July 1 under a new protocol that will require city attorneys to document the plea agreements they reach with DWI defendants, Williams wrote.
A formal response from Traffic Court is the most strident, saying Quatrevaux’s report seems to impugn the court when its main criticisms are for city attorneys, police and practices that are out of the judges’ hands. Chief Judge Robert Jones III also wrote that the data for the report are “stale,” noting that the court late last year launched a new, Web-based case management system to improve efficiency.
Yet Quatrevaux’s report found that one of the significant problems in allowing DWI offenders to remain free of punishment was that the court “had no written policy and did not consistently implement a system governing who should issue arrest warrants, when they should be issued, when to recall the warrants, and how to track and document the process.”
A draft of the IG’s report was sent out for comment in mid-May.
Within a week, the city attorneys in Traffic Court began refusing to entertain plea deals, in what Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office described as a 30-day pilot project. “In an effort to reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses, the city has implemented a new pilot policy that would require the penalties for all offenses in Traffic Court to be fully served,” mayoral spokesman Brad Howard said at the time.
Some defense attorneys viewed it as a preemptive move aimed at taking the wind out of Quatrevaux’s pending report.
Editor’s note: This story was changed June 24 to correct an error stating the agency of an employee who took home booking and bond paperwork from the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office to sort at home. The worker was a Traffic Court employee.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.