Orleans Parish District Attorney accepts road-rage case against cousin of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu _lowres

Kenneth Landrieu

For eight years, Kenneth Landrieu wore the six-pointed brass star of the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and carried a laminated “reserve” deputy card signed by Sheriff Marlin Gusman.

Whether the honorary designation gave Landrieu the power to chase down a driver, whip out a gun and threaten a man with arrest will be for an Orleans Parish jury to decide in a trial slated to start Tuesday before Criminal District Court Judge Laurie White.

Landrieu’s attorney claims his client was well within the law when he pursued the driver and announced he was a law enforcement officer following a near-collision on Magazine Street last September.

According to police, Landrieu pulled in front of the other vehicle in the Lower Garden District, hopped out of his baby blue 2004 Cadillac DeVille and pointed his gun at the driver, cursing and threatening to arrest him.

The other driver, Joseph Harris, claims Landrieu violated his constitutional rights. Harris also accuses Gusman’s office of “recklessly handing out law enforcement badges to unqualified and untrained individuals with a propensity toward violence and rage.”

If he is convicted, Landrieu, the 53-year-old son of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s aunt Phyllis, faces up to 10 years in prison on a charge of aggravated assault with a firearm. He also faces a count of false personation of a peace officer.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Landrieu and Gusman are both named in a federal civil rights lawsuit over the altercation on Sophie Wright Place — the same block where former Saints lineman Will Smith was shot dead in April during another alleged episode of road rage.

Gusman’s office insisted shortly after the Sept. 10 incident that Landrieu’s reserve status, first bestowed in 2007, was purely honorary — with no law enforcement authority behind it. But Landrieu’s attorney, Justin Zitler, said the badge and the photo ID card that goes with it tell a different story.

“That’s a real thing. It’s not a Mardi Gras throw. That’s an honest-to-goodness badge,” said Zitler, who noted the official duties written on the card.

“My guy acted within the scope and authority given to him by the terms and conditions of the commission itself,” Zitler said. “That was his understanding ever since he received his commission. He’s never had to use it, but he saw a crime being committed in front of his eyes, and he went after him.”

Zitler insists his client was authorized to chase down and cut off Harris’ vehicle and to flash his personal handgun in a bid to halt a reckless driver.

He said no parish in the state “has ever charged a person (holding) a valid commission and badge of any law enforcement agency with the crime of aggravated assault with a firearm” for merely drawing a weapon.

Landrieu doesn’t deny holding his weapon as he got out of the car, but he claims he never pointed it at Harris. In an interview shortly after his arrest, he claimed he was defending himself.

The practice of granting honorary deputy status to civilian backers is common among sheriffs statewide, though it occasionally sparks abuse and controversy.

Recent Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office records list Landrieu among 49 people granted “honorary special reserves” status by Gusman, though it’s unclear just what, if any, special powers it confers.

Among others on the list are former New Orleans City Councilman Jay Batt, singer Irma Thomas, jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and frequent political candidate Gary Landrieu, who is Kenneth Landrieu’s brother.

A separate list shows 74 “active reserve” deputies who take on specific law enforcement roles and may be eligible to work off-duty details in uniform.

A third roster, with some 90 names, lists members of the “Special Reserve Deputy Unit,” a group of dues-paying citizen volunteers that Gusman created in 2013 for community projects.

Blake Arcuri, an attorney for Gusman’s office, said reserve deputies in Landrieu’s category are not certified through the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, “which is required in order for any individual to carry a weapon in the performance of his duties or to conduct a traffic stop.”

Harris told police that Landrieu assumed “a two-handed shooting grip” as he approached Harris’ vehicle. He said Landrieu told him he was driving like a “maniac,” cursed him out and asked whether he’d been drinking beer or smoking marijuana.

“I had a gun pulled on my face by somebody that I believe to have been impersonating a police officer,” Harris told a 911 dispatcher. “And uh, he wasn’t an officer in uniform or anything. So, I was freaked out. ... He didn’t address himself as a police officer or anything. But he did threaten to uh, to call, he said he was going to call his boys and they’re going to come over and search my car.”

As a crowd gathered, Landrieu hopped back in his Cadillac and drove off.

In his federal lawsuit, Harris claims that as Landrieu hurled epithets at him, Harris “finally understood that Landrieu was a deputy acting under color of law.”

Zitler said that statement “completely contradicts” Harris’ account to police that he thought the guy with the badge and gun was an imposter.

Zitler said the federal claim bolsters Landrieu’s argument that Harris had no “reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery” after seeing the badge.

“What did (Landrieu) do? He got a reckless driver off the street. How did he do that? He showed a badge,” Zitler said. “It wasn’t an arrest. It was an investigatory stop, which he’s authorized to do.”

Harris’ attorney in the federal case, Salvador Bivalacqua, did not return a call for comment.

Follow Kyle Whitfield on Twitter, @kyle_whitfield.​