Originally posted at New International Times

Some three weeks after Katrina made landfall, I referenced (at the NIT)the complete collapse of the judicial system in Orleans and the surrounding parishes.  There were some 69,000 parolees that were unsupervised, their whereabouts unknown; an additional 7,000 registered sexual offenders in New Orleans alone  had been evacuated to localities in Louisiana and elsewhere that did not know their offender status.  In the wake of Katrina, 10,000 violent offenders were transported, after a fashion, to other jurisdictions in Louisiana without proper paperwork to identify them, or their crimes.  Many, many others under incarceration in New Orleans for lesser crimes were also sent to parish detention facilities farther north.  An unknown number released on bond await their day in court.
The firm that I work for does not do criminal representation per se, but does represent municipalities and their law enforcement agencies.  This has been a major headache for us, as the accused have been pursuing their rights to a speedy trial or being released without charge.  There is a clash ongoing between the tenets of Louisiana law that provides for detention without charge for 60 days on felony charges and 45 days for misdemeanors and outsiders interpretation of civil rights under the constitution.  

Obviously, both of these deadlines would have long expired for anyone held prior to Katrina and there have been many arrests in the wake of the storms.  There are several issues besides the constant ticking of the clock at hand, namely, the destruction of every court in Orleans parish and all of the repositories of evidence and paperwork.  New Orleans no longer has a single functioning courthouse; the main Criminal District Court compound remains shuttered and dark. Court records, the city’s two primary evidence vaults, coroner’s reports and the city crime lab were all flooded.  Eye witnesses to crime have been flung across the nation, as have many of the attorneys.  Defendants who were out on bond are now located across the country, some of them relocated to states far away with no prospects or means to return if called to make an appearance.  And, of the former 1.5 million people that lived in the metro area, only 60,000 have returned on a permanent basis, so there is hardy much of a population to draw a jury pool from.

So, can the state provide defendants with the trial by jury that they are guaranteed by law?  It doesn’t appear so, but when the state is struggling with so many financial and infrastructure issues, they are trying to walk a fine line in reestablishing law and order.  Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and the state Supreme Court have given prosecutors extensions, which defense attorneys say might be illegal considering that the state and U.S. constitutions guarantee defendants the right to a speedy trial.  New Orleans police are patrolling during the day to prevent continued looting, but abandon the city patrols by night.   Cases are piling up, both old and new.

Recently, an attorney in our office, representing a local detention center stood by as the Orleans Parish’s chief Criminal District Court judge ordered more than 100 prisoners freed. After reviewing the ruling, the Louisiana Supreme Court said 34 of the inmates should be released immediately. The others have to remain in custody until at least Jan. 6 while the district attorney’s office considers how to proceed in those cases.  But, the DA’s office bears an unusual burden in attempting to prosecute cases when the evidence room at New Orleans Police Department headquarters on Broad Street, the crime laboratory on Tulane Avenue, and the basement of the criminal court at Tulane and Broad were all were flooded.  Much of the evidence has been destroyed.

So, where do we stand on the rights of the criminally accused?  Do we extend the deadlines in order to allow prosecutors additional time to make a case sans evidence?  Do we hold the accused under the burden of transporting themselves back to the jurisdiction they are charged when it was the government that displaced them?  Do we throw up our hands and allow a fractured community to sink further into lawlessness in the name of civil rights?  Or do we just concede that you win some and you lose some and like the levees that protect New Orleans, we have to build the legal system over from scratch?

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