Monday, September 1, 2008

It's Official: Gustav Looters GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL (Not to Angola Prison)

by Vanessa Leggett

Most of us know better than to believe everything we see on TV. But when an official makes an emergency announcement during a press conference televised worldwide, we pay attention, as we should. And we tend to accept such statements as fact.
As Hurricane Gustav churned toward the Gulf Coast over the weekend, I caught a press conference on CNN.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin had important announcements to make. This was the third time in as many years that Mayor Nagin found himself addressing a panicked public trying to recover from or prepare for cataclysmic hurricanes: first Katrina (looter pictured above), then Rita, and now Gustav. “This is the Storm of the Century,” the mayor proclaimed on Saturday.
"The Storm of the Century"

Big storms call for big words. And Mayor Nagin was full of them. A
mandatory evacuation had been ordered in anticipation of a Category 4 hurricane. The mayor had a warning for anyone who did not follow orders to evacuate: Watch out for flying mobile homes. Trailers would become “projectiles,” he said, and would “start to fly around the city.”
He also had a warning for crooks planning to take advantage of the city-wide evacuation. "Anybody who is caught looting in New Orleans will be brought directly to Angola,” he said, repeating himself: "Directly to Angola."
This statement hit me harder than the one about trailers hurtling through the city, which Nagin said to expect as "a matter of fact," though it sounded more like the movie Twister than reality. I remembered the devastation Katrina brought, however, so I was prepared to believe in flying trailers.

I was not ready to accept that the Constitution would be thrown to the wind as well—that police would pluck looters from the streets of New Orleans and haul the accused to Louisiana's Death Row. If cows could fly in Twister, BS could fly in a press conference. Nothing unrealistic about that. In fact, City Hall seemed as fitting a venue as any. But the mayor's message was broadcast worldwide.

“You will not have a temporary stay in the city," Mayor Nagin continued. "You’ll go directly to the Big House, in general population. You will go directly to Angola Prison. And God bless you when you go there."

Given New Orleans’ experience during the storms of 2005, cautioning would-be looters was called for—especially after Hurricane Katrina, when pilfering was so widespread that even uniformed members of law enforcement were
filmed helping themselves to goods from a Wal-Mart.

I remember how stunned I had been to see
police captured on tape, stealing in the storm-torn town they were sworn to protect. But I found Nagin's message even more shocking. Here was the Mayor of New Orleans making an official announcement, threatening thieves picking over others' belongings with a direct ticket to "general population" in the nation's largest maximum-security prison, the "Alcatraz of the South." It was unbelievable.
Maybe my personal background is what kept me from buying the threat. I'd taught corrections at a university and later did time in a maximum-security federal facility. You could say I know a thing or two about the prison system. My knowledge of how things are run on both sides of the bars did not square with Nagin's threat.
C.J. 101: Arrestees are detained in jails, not prisons. Penitentiaries house those who have been convicted of a crime, felons who have been sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
The Mayor Has No Clothes
Traditionally, the responsibility of bringing such errors to public attention falls on the media. (Though it doesn’t always happen that way and results can be disastrous. Just ask former ambassador Joe Wilson.) Of course, the mainstream media might not be motivated to correct this type of inaccuracy, since it seemed to me at least that Nagin was using a scare tactic to force law and order. I'm guessing journalists with more practiced noses than mine at "smell test" reporting shared my initial reservation in bringing the error to the public's attention: Why let the thugs think otherwise? And there was a less honorable reason the press did not point a finger at Nagin to say there was not a thread of truth to the mayor's statement: some reporters never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

But after watching credible journalists like
Wolf Blitzer perpetuate Nagin’s claim that looters would be sent directly to Angola, I started to wonder . . . Could it be true? Yet another report made me reconsider my initial impression. A New Orleans-based broadcast journalist interviewed by CNN echoed the cable network's reports that looters would be sent directly to the Big House. "They’re serious," he said, seeming, well, serious.

When in Louisiana . . .
OK. If a local reporter was backing up Nagin's claim, maybe these Louisianans were serious after all. The law in Louisiana is different from any other state in the country—and I’m not referring to the way it’s enforced, or that it’s sometimes not enforced. Louisiana operates under the Napoleonic Code.

I decided to check
the statute, which I was not surprised to see had been revised since the storms of 2005:

"Whoever commits the crime of looting during the existence of a state of emergency . . . shall be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than three years nor more than fifteen years without benefit of probation, parole, or suspension of sentence."
The punishment seemed a bit harsh. For a property crime that could be as small as stealing a loaf of bread to keep from starving, sending someone to prison for a minimum 1,095 days approached the fiction of Les Misėrables. In New Orleans a few years ago, those who rode out Katrina truly were without survival essentials. In the looting footage cited above, the reporter at Wal-Mart asked one man if he was stealing from the store.
"We have no means of washed clothes or food, sure," he said, continuing shopping.
If Nagin's straight-to-prison threat became reality, what would happen to a victim who was without food, or a merchant to sell it to him? And what if an evacuating homeowner returned to pick up something left behind? What if, for example, a New Orleans P.D. officer didn't believe he really lived there? Should an innocent man go straight to prison? Would a teenager having fun in all the chaos by stealing a plastic pink flamingo from a neighbor's yard find himself in general pop at Angola?
Where in all this mess is a little thing called due process? As the Louisiana looting statute stands, at least three years prison would be mandatory for anyone found guilty of looting during an emergency. In addition to imprisonment, a fine would be subject to a judge's discretion. How could a monetary punishment be left up to a judge in a courtroom, but a man's life and liberty rest solely in the hands of an officer on the street?
As preposterous as the whole thing seemed to me, one phrase in the statute gave me pause. Looters would be “imprisoned at hard labor.” Angola, a.k.a. "The Farm," is perhaps the country’s most recognized hard labor prison. The acronym for Louisiana State Penitentiary stands for something else to the prison population, which knows L.S.P. as the “Last Slave Plantation.”

I did a quick fact tally. During a state of emergency, the law mandates "hard labor" as punishment for all looters. And Angola Prison is the state symbol for chain-gang labor. Maybe the mayor wasn’t off his rocker. Two years ago,
Katrina looters had been dealt double-digit prison sentences for stealing booze from a store, to "send a message."

Louisiana does do things differently. And exigencies can similarly affect how laws are applied in any state. The Constitution makes due process exceptions during times of war or in cases arising out of "public danger." Insurance policies contain clauses addressing force majeure, or “acts of God,” which can change the rules.
More than a century ago, The New York Times ran a story days after the Great Storm of 1900, a Category 4 hurricane, which claimed more than 6,000 lives in another Gulf Coast community: Galveston, Texas. In the aftermath of that disaster, an insurance company spokesman was quoted as saying "The letter of the law will not be adhered to."
In 2005, one New Orleans cop looting the Wal-Mart had the same spirit. In that footage, a reporter asked an officer what was going on in the closed superstore. "Doing my job," the cop said, walking away from a basket of stolen goods. "Looking for looters."
Lessons from History
According to storm lore, on September 9, 1900, the day after the Great Storm made landfall on Galveston Island, literally thousands of corpses began rapidly decomposing in the Gulf Coast's relentless heat and humidity. On the small island, the stench of human remains and livestock carcases littering the landscape was unbearable. Survivors quickly decided to dump bodies at sea. Looters complicated efforts to ID the dead. Police caught one man whose pockets were stuffed with a couple of dozen gold rings, the owners’ fingers still attached. Ears and other body parts were severed for jewelry. More than thirty looters were dealt with Texas-style: the majority were shot to death, some on the spot.

Contra-flow of Information
Like Texas, Louisiana is a renegade state, but I still doubted Mayor Nagin's sincerity. I had to do a little independent investigation. I checked for official press releases restating the mayor's Angola warning, but found nothing.
Visiting the Louisiana State Penitentiary Web site, I did discover a public notice concerning the state prison system's "Preparation for Tropical Storm Gustav." The press release simply notified the public that visitation would be suspended. The L.S.P. posted the bulletin to inform and "assure the public that the prison is secure and public safety will be maintained through this emergency crisis." Nothing about Angola.
I e-mailed a request for more specific information regarding Mayor Nagin's comments. Here was the official response:
Post-evacuation and post-storm arrestees will be housed at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, not Louisiana State Penitentiary. . . .We are in the process of establishing court functions at EHCC for later in the week. More than likely, a judge will be appointed to hear cases from all parishes making arrests, instead of having a judge from each parish coming in and handling only that parish. We're still working out the details on that, but we did have some court hearings at EHCC after Hurricane Katrina so this is not unchartered territory.

Pam Laborde, the Communications Director for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, ended the statement with the typical courtesy: "Please let me know if you have any further questions."
I did. Perhaps I asked too many. Though she'd just confirmed, in so many words, that the mayor's claim had no clothes, I knew I had to press, specifically about Angola. And while Ms. Laborde's responses were helpful . . . it wasn't until I bore down on Angola, that I received the information I needed:
"Angola has nothing to do with this story," she wrote, "other than the fact that the mayor apparently gave incorrect information as to where arrestees would be taken."
The Mayor is Full of Hot Air ("Apparently")

I do understand that leaders have to make choices for the greater good of those they serve. And this would not be the first time or the last that a man in charge delivered deliberate misinformation for what he believed was in the better interest of his community.
Maybe Nagin's prevarication served its purpose. The mayor gave his "Mother of All Storms" warning Saturday night as mass evacuations were under way. As of Sunday morning, the New Orleans Police Department reported no arrests for looting. Then again, those reports came during the calm before the storm.
But should it ever be acceptable for an elected official to deliberately mislead his constituency? Does talk of projectile mobile homes and prison without due process (if spoken to secure the public's personal safety and property) rise to the level of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater? I'm not sure.
But I have a problem with even the appearance that a person's Fifth Amendment rights can be gutted, even if the threat is ultimately empty. If that's what Mayor Nagin did, he abused the First Amendment.
On the other hand, I would support a citizen's right to push the free speech envelope. I appreciated this comment to an online news story restating the mayor's whopper. This reader had an even stronger notion of how looters could be deterred:
"Unless they drop [the property] immediately, shoot them. Tag them with signs saying, this was a looter."
Lesser of Two Disasters
Perhaps Nagin's greater good was served. But what will the repercussions be, considering his message was broadcast around the world? Might other countries wonder: Is that how America now deals with petty thieves? Hard-core prison without benefit of trial or so much as a hearing before a magistrate?
Early this morning, as the world waited for Gustav to make landfall, I was thankful to see CNN storm trooper Anderson Cooper wisely revising history. He seemed to fumble for words that wouldn’t take the wind out of the mayor’s threat, but would make the report closer to the truth.
“You will be taken directly to a local jail,” he said.
Anderson’s trademark squint seemed especially blinky. Perhaps it was the wind whipping his face. More likely, I think, is that Anderson realized what he’d just said on live television:
Looters will be confined in a jail within the city that Gustav is barreling toward, the "ghost town" that everyone else has evacuated.


Anonymous said...

Good story!

We're in Mobile, AL and the local coverage here interviewed a National Guard person in New Orleans, early in the Gustav storm, he said they had already caught a few looters.

I found it interesting the national media reported, "No looters."

After Katrina, we had thousands of transplanted evacuees. We also had a big increase in criminal activity. There were drive by shootings at a shelter, housed in a church. The ship docked downtown had police calls numerous times a day for a wide variety of crimes. The city finally got it moved out.

Good story, don't believe everything you see or read in the media.

San Antonio Lawyer said...

Good story. Very nice! Well done.

bathmate said...

Thank you for your fantastic posting


Nick Matyas said...

Happy new year.2010
this is outstanding posting for comment,
thank you.