Louisiana’s 2014 Legislative Session Roundup

The good, the bad and the ugly in criminal justice laws

This year, a number of states, including Louisiana’s neighboring state of Mississippi, began to scale back penalties for offenders convicted of nonviolent offenses in an attempt to reduce costs and prioritize prison space for violent criminals. Louisiana, however, decided to honor its dubious “highest incarceration rate in the nation” title by heading in the opposite direction. Indeed, a number of common sense criminal justice reform bills failed in Louisiana this session, which wrapped up on June 2nd.

While some laws were enacted that made minor reforms worth highlighting, the positive impact of the reforms will likely be overshadowed by the bad and the downright ugly laws enacted this session. These laws will likely increase the number of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders in prison as well as the amount of time they’ll be required to stay there-all with no added benefit to public safety (and certainly not taxpayers).

Below is a summary of the (sort-of) good, the bad, and the (very) ugly new criminal justice laws in Louisiana.

The Good

House Bill 461 (Act 512): House Bill 461, signed into law as Act 512 by Governor Jindal, repeals the state’s drug traffic loitering statute. Previously, drug traffic loitering was defined as “remaining in a public place in a manner and under circumstances manifesting the purpose to engage in unlawful conduct” in violation of one of the state drug laws.

Under this now repealed statute, the circumstances that may have been considered in determining whether a person was engaged in “drug traffic loitering” were extremely broad, and could have easily been applied to actions of innocent people. A few examples of such circumstances include:

  • Being on or in premises that have been reported to law enforcement as a place suspected of unlawful drug activity;
  • Being within six feet of any vehicle registered to a known unlawful drug user, possessor, or seller, or a person for whom there is an outstanding warrant for a crime involving drug-related activity; or
  • Repeatedly beckoning to, stopping, or attempting to stop passersby or engaging passersby in conversation.

These circumstances, of course, could inadvertently result in the arrest or conviction of innocent persons who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The repeal of this statute is a welcome, and very positive, move by the legislature and Governor Jindal, in that it eliminates the possibility for innocent people to be arrested or convicted of unintentionally or unknowingly breaking a law.

The Good/Bad

House Bill 791 (Act 255): House Bill 791, signed into law as Act 255 by Governor Jindal, makes a few changes to theft-related statutes that are both good and bad. The most significant (and positive) aspect this law is that the monetary threshold necessary to trigger a felony theft offense in Louisiana is now $750. Previously, the monetary threshold was $500. HB 791 also increases the monetary threshold necessary to trigger a variety of increased punishments across the board.

This law also repeals statutes related to the theft of livestock, animals, crawfish, timber, alligators, rental motor vehicles, motor vehicle fuel, used building components, and copper.

Unfortunately, this law now requires a mandatory minimum of five years of hard labor in prison for theft when the misappropriation or taking amounts to $25,000 or more. The law also allows 20 years as the maximum punishment for this offense, with the option of adding a $50,000 fine. Prior to HB 791, there was no mandatory minimum punishment for any theft offense. Instead the harshest punishment reserved for the crime of theft was a maximum of ten years in prison, a fine of not more than $3,000, or both.

While this mandatory minimum will only be applied to those convicted of a more serious theft charge, it is still unnecessary. Prior to the law’s enactment, judges had the option of sentencing offenders convicted of theft of $25,000 or more to five years in prison if they found it to be the appropriate sentence. Requiring a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment simply limits judges from exercising judicial discretion to determine the most appropriate form of punishment in these types of cases.

The Bad

Senate Bill 187 (Act 289): Senate Bill 187, signed into law as Act 289 by Governor Jindal, extends Louisiana’s “drug free zones” to include private residences. Meaning, if a person is convicted of a drug offense within his or her own private residence that happens to be located within a “drug free zone,” he or she will be subject to sentencing enhancements.

According to Louisiana law, whoever is convicted of committing a drug offense within a “drug free zone” shall be imprisoned for not more than one and one-half times the longest term of imprisonment and pay the maximum fine required for the offense committed.

In Louisiana, drug free zones are defined as any property used for school purposes by any school, any property used as a drug treatment facility, any property belonging to a religious institution, public housing authority or child day care center, or within 2,000 feet of any of these properties, if it is posted as a drug free zone. Now, private residences within 2,000 feet of any of these properties are included in drug free zones as well.

Drug free zones were originally created to keep drug users and dealers away from vulnerable areas, such as schools, churches, day cares, etc. By extending drug free zones to private residences located within 2,000 feet of any of these properties, the state essentially increased sentences for all drug offenses-regardless of how petty-for those who are unlucky enough to be caught voluntarily consuming illegal substances (even marijuana) within the privacy of their own homes. This law will only continue to add to the overwhelming number of drug offenders serving prison sentences in the state.

The Ugly

Senate Bill 87 (Act 368): While other states have begun to scale back penalties for nonviolent offenses, particularly drug offenses, Louisiana decided to instead run in the opposite direction this legislative session by signing Senate Bill 87 into law.

The law requires offenders convicted of selling any amount of heroin-which can include mixed substances with trace amounts of heroin-to a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison for a first offense. These 10 years must be served without the benefit of probation or a suspension of sentence. The maximum sentence a judge may prescribe for a first-time offender convicted of selling any amount of heroin is 50 years.

If a person is convicted of selling any amount of heroin a second time, the requires judges to sentence him or her to a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison (without the benefit of probation or parole), and a maximum of 99 years in prison. This maximum sentence is of course typically reserved for those who commit the most heinous of crimes. However, Louisiana legislators (and Governor Jindal) seemingly saw fit to include nonviolent, petty drug criminals into the group of those who warrant this type of punishment.

During testimony for this bill, Sheriffs and District Attorneys predictably cited a recent “heroin epidemic” as justification for increasing the mandatory minimum to such an extent. Indeed, the number of people who have overdosed on heroin was much higher in 2013 than in 2012. However, both groups agreed that a number of people have switched to heroin as a result of a “successful” crackdown on prescription pills that contain oxycodone and hydrocodone, and that the purity of heroin on the streets has increased significantly in recent years. Apparently the link between these two factors and increased overdoses was lost on those with legislative authority in Louisiana this session.

Perhaps if Louisiana’s prisons begin to fill with petty dealers and the state experiences no demonstrable decrease in crime, officials will reconsider the merits of this law.