Canal Street CVS

Canal Street in New Orleans (image via Google Maps)

A homeless man who spent 80 days in jail after he was accused of writing graffiti on the wall of a Central Business District drugstore pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor Tuesday, resolving a case that drew attention from civil rights lawyers because of his $10,000 bail.

Matthew Aldous pleaded guilty to simple criminal damage to property, under an agreement with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office that will require him to remain under the supervision of a special mental health court for one year.

Aldous remained in custody on Wednesday, but he could be released soon, depending on the status of several municipal cases.

His plea ended a case which his advocates said was unnecessarily prolonged by high bails decreed by two judges.

Prosecutors and public defenders sounded similar notes about how the arrest and its aftermath showed the need for more social services in New Orleans. According to his lawyers, Aldous suffers from unspecified health problems. However, the two sides offered different takes on why he spent so long in jail.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, whose office had charged the case as a potential felony carrying up to two years in prison, said he was pleased that Aldous and his lawyer “finally” accepted the plea deal offer a week after it was extended.

“With 16 arrests in Orleans Parish over the past two years — including six since November — Mr. Aldous has demonstrated a dire need for the scant mental health services our community can provide,” Cannizzaro said in a prepared statement. “The criminal justice system is ill-equipped and underfunded to provide consistent treatment, but we hope this can be the badly needed first step in helping this troubled individual.”

On the other hand, an Orleans Public Defenders spokeswoman called Aldous’ jail time a needless waste from the start.

“We're pleased Mr. Aldous will receive much-needed housing and care, but he shouldn’t have been in jail for more than two months to begin with,” Lindsey Hortenstine said in a statement. “Mr. Aldous’ incarcerations were not only a waste of our city’s limited resources, but did not make us any safer.”

Police arrested Aldous on Jan. 13 after they said he was spotted scrawling on a CVS store in the 800 block of Canal Street with a marker. He has a history of minor arrests for theft and shoplifting from downtown shops, and officials said he had been asked to stay away from this store.

Outside the French Quarter or Central Business District, Aldous might have been released within hours by a Municipal Court judge. But under Louisiana law, the drugstore’s location in the Downtown Development District meant that Aldous was eligible for booking on a felony count of criminal damage to a historic building.

When he went before Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell in January, the judge still had the option of releasing him on his own recognizance.

A report from the court’s pre-trial services division recommended release. A prosecutor said Aldous posed no danger, and a lawyer with the Orleans Public Defenders said his client could not post a cash bail.

Even so, Cantrell set Aldous’ bail at $10,000, citing the fact that he had missed two prior court dates in Municipal Court. His attorney said that given Aldous’ lack of means, that would amount to a detention order.

Last month, lawyers with the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans highlighted Aldous’ case and others to argue that Cantrell was in violation of a federal court declaration. In August 2018, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon said that under the U.S. Constitution, the magistrate judge must consider defendants’ ability to pay and alternatives to incarceration in making bail decisions.

Cannizzaro’s prosecutors had a spectrum of choices in the weeks after Aldous' booking. They could have accepted the case as a felony or a misdemeanor, or declined to prosecute it. Prosecutors accepted the case as a potential felony on Feb. 25, and it was transferred to Criminal District Court Judge Darryl Derbigny.

Elizabeth Harvey, a staff attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders, filed a fresh motion to have Aldous released on his own recognizance.

Derbigny lowered his bail to $5,000 on March 27 over the objections of Harvey, who said Aldous still would not be able to make it. The judge did not explain his reasoning.

Prosecutors said they offered Harvey and her client the misdemeanor plus mental health court deal the same day, but she rejected it on his behalf.

On Monday, Harvey filed a written motion arguing that Derbigny, too, was in violation of Fallon’s declaration by failing to consider Aldous’ poverty before setting the $5,000 bail. But instead of Harvey offering arguments on that motion, her client took the plea deal.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.