CCR Survey Finds New Orleans Magistrates Regularly Violate Rights

Print Friendly and PDF

In Sample, Magistrates Fail to Properly Determine Probable Cause in 83 Percent of First Appearances

CONTACT: press@ccrjustice.org

September 15, 2009, New Orleans, LA – Today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) submitted an amicus brief to the Louisiana Supreme Court in support of Bruce Wallace, a petitioner who alleges his due process rights were violated when the court failed to determine within 48 hours whether or not there was probable cause for his warrantless arrest, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court. The amicus included data from a recent survey conducted by CCR which monitored 60 consecutive first appearances in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court over the course of five weeks.

“An arrestee’s first appearance is where the magistrate judge, among other tasks, sets bail, appoints counsel, determines whether or not a warrantless arrest was made with probable cause and allows individuals to exercise their fundamental rights,” said CCR Legal Director Bill Quigley. “Instead, we found the courts rushed through first appearances, on average spending less than two minutes per case – this is a troubling indication of system-wide failure to uphold the U.S. Constitution.”

The amicus brief provides evidence that the magistrates regularly:  1) failed to read the affidavit of probable cause, a document provided by the arresting officer that explains the reason for the arrest; 2) failed to determine whether or not the arresting officer had probable cause; and 3) failed to determine probable cause in a timely fashion, contributing to prolonged unjustified detention.

“The survey found a disturbing pattern of constitutional and statutory violations. The magistrates are simply not doing what the law requires,” said CCR Attorney Alexis Agathocleous. “We urge the Louisiana Supreme Court to issue an unambiguous reminder of the fundamental protections afforded to all individuals who are arrested without a warrant, and to craft simple remedies that will ensure that these violations do not continue unchecked.”

The brief presents several initial findings from court observations of 60 first appearance sessions in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court involving 1,438 arrestees and a total of 2,364 charges. Among other findings, the survey found that:

  • The magistrate read or heard none of the affidavit of probable cause in 38 percent of the cases, and read or heard only part of the affidavit in 23 percent of the cases, even though Louisiana state law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent require that a timely finding of probable cause be based on the contents of such affidavits;
  • There was no record, written or oral, of probable cause determination in 83 percent of cases; and
  • In several instances, the commissioners explicitly refused to make a probable cause determination at first appearances, instead postponing it for another 48 hours to allow the State to attempt to gather and provide more information, in plain violation of Supreme Court precedent.
An argument in Mr. Wallace’s case is scheduled for October 21, 2009. Mr. Wallace is represented by Orleans Public Defenders.

To read the full amicus brief, scroll down.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.