One of the first -- perhaps the first -- uses of Louisiana’s new “Blue Lives Matter” law turned into an epic misfire after the New Orleans Police Department acknowledged Thursday that officers wrongly applied it to the case of an intoxicated homeless man who allegedly smashed a window at a French Quarter hotel and then shouted racial and sexual slurs at cops.
Raul Delatoba, 34, was booked on a felony hate crime count Monday after police said he broke a window at the Royal Sonesta Hotel, then called a female desk officer a “c---” and a black officer a “n-----.”
Delatoba never put hands on any of his arresting officers, according to his arrest report, so it was initially unclear why the “Blue Lives Matter” law -- which extended Louisiana’s pre-existing hate crimes law to apply to police and firefighters, but does not criminalize speech by itself -- was used against him.
Hate-crimes laws may be invoked only when a more serious criminal offense accompanies verbal slurs.
In May, Gov. John Bel Edwards put his signature on the new law that treats attacks on police or firefighters as hate crimes. But it was unclear whether the law had been used anywhere until this week .
Tyler Gamble, an NOPD spokesman, said Thursday he believes Delatoba’s arrest was the first time it has been used by the local department. But he also said the law’s first use in New Orleans was a mistake.
“After reviewing the initial facts of the case, it is clear that the responding officer incorrectly applied the law relative to a hate crime in this incident,” Gamble said.
The Police Department's backtrack cheered the Orleans Public Defenders, who are representing Delatoba.
“I think that’s the right decision,” said Lindsey Hortenstine, a spokeswoman for that office. “I’m glad that they have taken a second look.”
The hate crimes statute was invoked at the direction of a supervisor, 8th District Sgt. S. Jackson, according to an arrest report. The report said the incident began about 5:15 a.m. Monday outside the Royal Sonesta, where a security guard told officers that he heard several large bangs outside the hotel and then found Delatoba hitting a window with his hands.
When the guard, who is black, asked Delatoba to stop, Delatoba began to yell at him and called him a “n-----,” according to a police report.
The guard and a supervisor then flagged down a state trooper, who took Delatoba to the 8th District Station.
Police said that once he was in custody, Delatoba continued his verbal assault, shouting expletives at at least two more officers.
At that point, according to an arrest report, Jackson instructed an officer to charge Delatoba with a hate crime because of his “attack on individuals based on their race, sex and occupation.”
The arrest report did not clarify, however, whether the occupation of the police officers as opposed to the security guards was at issue. But Gamble, the NOPD spokesman, said the officers did intend to invoke the new “Blue Lives Matter” law.
Arrest records listed the hotel, the security guard and the NOPD desk officer as victims in the incident.
For the hate crime statute to come into play, however, an offender must commit one of several specified offenses against the victim or victims. Delatoba’s arrest report never specified just what his crime against the officers might have been other than the “verbal attack.”
The law’s chief sponsor, Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, said it was not intended to apply to any situations involving mere verbal attacks, “except for maybe acts of terrorism.”
“I think that the hate crimes statue is abundantly clear where and how it can be used, so I don’t think there’s any question on that,” Harris said.
Harris said he envisioned that police officers would apply the law in conjunction with the advice of district attorneys.
“It’s for the DA to use at their discretion,” Harris said. “I’ve always said that this gives the DAs an extra tool in the toolbox to use at their discretion.”
Harris said he was not aware of any other instances in which the law has been applied.
Allison Padilla-Goodman, the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said Delatoba’s arrest showed the need for greater education on hate crimes in general.
“I mean this for law enforcement as well as for community members. We just have a lot of catch-up to do,” Padilla-Goodman said.
Gamble said that until now, officers have received only “informal” training on how to use the new "Blue Lives Matter" provision.
“There’s been some training, but there needs to be more, and there will be more,” Gamble said.
Delatoba was also booked on counts of simple criminal damage to property and disturbing the peace, but most of his $15,000 bail stems from the felony hate crimes count. Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell found probable cause on all three counts on Tuesday.
“When I read the statute, it looked like the probable cause had been established, and the public defender didn’t challenge it either,” Cantrell said.
Delatoba, whose home address was listed as a homeless shelter in the Central Business District, remained in jail Thursday.