Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Source: Timespicayune.com

Man in jail for months amid mix-up

Charges wrongly put on St. Charles inmate
Friday, April 21, 2006
By Matt Scallan
River Parishes bureau

A Florida man arrested on a crack cocaine possession charge in New Orleans spent six months in jail without bond because of a records mix-up that led jailers to believe he also was facing trial for attempted murder and looting.
Irvin Brown, 45, who was being held in the St. Charles Parish jail along with nearly 30 other Orleans detainees, got a court order for his release Monday but was hauled back to Orleans Parish Prison after the St. Charles prison officials saw the more serious charges listed against him.
Leatrice Dupre, a spokeswoman for the Orleans district attorney's office, said the more serious charges were mistakenly attached to Brown's case file because of a mix-up.
"This happened during the chaos that we faced after Hurricane Katrina," she said. "We had lost our computer system, and everything was being done by hand. Apparently, the wrong magistrate number was attached to his file."
It wasn't until Brown was back in Orleans Prison this week that officials reviewed his case and found the mistake. He was released Thursday after pleading guilty and receiving a three-year suspended sentence on the possession charge.
Dupre said Thursday that it was unclear whether the district attorney's office or the clerk of criminal court's office made the mistake.
"We in the criminal justice system were all working under very chaotic and primitive conditions," she said.
Brown was shipped off to the Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel after his arrest on Oct. 11, then to the Nelson Coleman Correctional Center in St. Charles Parish in January, where he languished before reaching Norco attorney Vic Bradley Jr., who works on the parish's indigent defender board.
Bradley filed a motion for Brown's release in St. Charles Parish's 29th Judicial District Court, based on the legal requirement that defendants come before a judge within 72 hours of their arrest so that bond can be set.
Judge Emile St. Pierre granted the motion Monday, saying he had no choice under the law but to let Brown go.
But Brown's incarceration wasn't over yet.
St. Charles deputies checked with the New Orleans Police Department and saw that Brown faced more serious charges for which bond had been set, and the state Department of Corrections confirmed the information.
St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said St. Pierre verbally reversed himself and ordered Brown to be turned over to the NOPD.
"I think we're lucky that we didn't let this guy out," Champagne said Wednesday.
St. Pierre's reversal apparently wasn't put in writing and never got into the file.
"I thought he had been let out," Bradley said. "If there was a reversal, I should have been contacted."
St. Pierre was out of town this week and could not be reached for comment.
On Thursday, Brown pleaded guilty in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court to the possession charge and was given a three-year suspended sentence and ordered to report to participate in the Orleans Parish drug court.
Champagne said Thursday that his jail is housing Orleans Parish prisoners to help the city's criminal justice system get back on its feet and that his officers had no way of knowing that the charges against Brown were bogus.
"We're just housing them," he said. "I agreed to do this after the state attorney general personally asked us for help."
However, he said he has ordered a review of the records of all Orleans inmates being held at the jail.
"We're taking every step we can to ensure that the paperwork for these people are in order, but I don't know that we could have caught something like this," he said.
However, Brown's problem isn't unique, said Pamela Metzger, associate dean at the Tulane University Law Clinic.
Inmates arrested on minor charges are being allowed to languish for months in understaffed rural jails throughout the state, she said.
She and other law clinic workers have traveled across the state to interview inmates to determine whether they are being given due process.
"There are a lot of Irvin Browns out there," Metzger said.


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