New Orleans police officers would no longer be required to arrest motorists who have suspended, expired or revoked driver's licenses under an ordinance passed unanimously on Thursday by the City Council.
The ordinance, proposed by Councilwoman Helena Moreno and Councilman Jared Brossett, also discourages officers from making arrests for any minor traffic offense.
"We believe that precious police manpower should be spent on serious crimes ... and not spending hours on jailing individuals for minor offenses," Moreno said.
The ordinance goes next to Mayor LaToya Cantrell for her signature.
The move was prompted by the arrest of former City Councilman Oliver Thomas following a crash earlier this year.
Thomas, who had a suspended license and an unpaid ticket in St. Charles Parish, was briefly jailed after his car was hit by another vehicle. First, though, he and his stepdaughter and son were taken to the hospital after the crash, and officers waited there for six hours so they could book him at the jail.
However, council members said the problem is more widespread than that incident.
The ordinance would eliminate a requirement in the city code that officers must make an arrest whenever a driver does not have a valid license. Arrests would still be required for certain serious traffic offenses — driving under the influence, hit-and-run crashes and reckless driving — and would be allowed if the situation warranted it.
Moreno said the measure was designed both to avoid jailing people on minor charges and to prevent officers from having to sit at the jail waiting to book someone for a minor offense, something that can take more than an hour.
"We want to have a department focused on violence, focused on property crimes and not a department that is focused on jailing people for these minor traffic offenses," Moreno said.
Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche said he supports the ordinance's purpose but that it alone would not be enough. He said change will come only when the Police Department enforces policies that discourage such arrests, has supervisors check to make sure officers are following the new rules, and tracks how well they are being adhered to.
Moreno said she trusts Superintendent Michael Harrison to put the needed changes into effect.