NEW ORLEANS – As of Feb. 1, DWI cases are no longer being prosecuted by city attorneys at Traffic Court.
Instead, they’re being handled around the corner at Orleans Parish Criminal Court.
It’s a move District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said will allow his prosecutors to go after repeat offenders and drivers with high blood-alcohol levels.
The move comes at a time when the DA and city leaders are at odds about budget cuts to Cannizzaro’s office, but it’s not one everyone is behind.
Cannizzaro, in convincing the state Legislature to give his office jurisdiction over DWI cases, points to a recent Inspector General report that found more than 14,000 open DWI cases in traffic court. Many of the cases date back to the 1980s.
The report also found poor record-keeping that made it impossible to determine the status of those cases, Cannizzaro said.
“I'm simply looking to try and more efficiently handle the DWIs in the city of New Orleans, so we don't create some public safety issue by causing the intoxicated driver to get out on the street and hurt an innocent person,” Cannizzaro said.
The fees and fines from DWI prosecutions generate about $1 million a year in revenue for the city.
While Cannizzaro’s office was dealt a $600,000 cut, he said moving the cases to state court isn’t a way to shore up losses.
“Certainly, my budget has been cut. We are certainly upset and disturbed by that,” Cannizzaro said. “We are not going to be in a position to make up those budget cuts by simply bringing those DWI cases into the Criminal District Court.
Meanwhile, the chief of trials for the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s Office said moving DWI case to state court will drain his resources.
Daniel Engelberg said the new cases will put extra stress on the “significant case load” public defenders already face. The Metropolitan Crime Commission said it supports the move.
“The DA's office will be screening the DWI’s and making decisions on a public safety basis as opposed to just trying to resolve the case with a plea deal and making some money for the city of New Orleans,” said Rafael Goyeneche, who heads up the watchdog group.
Cannizzaro said moving DWI cases to Tulane and Broad will add 800 to 1,000 new cases to criminal court.
Engelberg said he has concerns that the hundreds of new cases coming toward his public defenders could result in longer pre-trial incarceration for DWI suspected who cannot make bail.
Two weeks ago, Engelberg said, he met a man who’d been jailed two weeks after being busted for DWI.
Cannizzaro, however, said the move is necessary to keep people safe.
“If we don't pay attention to it, then it could result in someone getting very seriously hurt on the highways or the streets of this city,” he said.
Cannizzaro pointed out that Orleans Parish was the only parish in the state in which the DA’s office did not have jurisdiction over DWI prosecutions.
City Hall on Monday did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Eyewitness News.