Criminal Justice Collapse: The Constitution after Hurricane Katrina

52 Pages Posted: 18 May 2006

See all articles by Brandon L. Garrett

Brandon L. Garrett

Duke University School of Law

Tania Tetlow

Tulane University - School of Law


The New Orleans criminal justice system collapsed after Hurricane Katrina, resulting in a constitutional crisis. Eight thousand people, mostly indigent and charged with misdemeanors such as public drunkenness or failure to pay traffic tickets, languished indefinitely in state prisons. The court system shut its doors, the police department fell into disarray, few prosecutors remained, and a handful of public defenders could not meet with, much less represent, the thousands detained. This dire situation persisted for many months, long after the system should have been able to recover. We present a narrative of the collapse of the New Orleans area criminal system after Hurricane Katrina. Not only did this perfect storm illuminate how unprepared our local criminal systems may remain for a severe natural disaster or terrorist attack, but it raised unique and underexplored constitutional questions. We argue that constitutional criminal procedure failed to serve its protective role during this emergency, while deferential rules rooted in federalism had the unanticipated effect of hindering provision of critical federal emergency assistance, and perhaps most important, longstanding local neglect rendered the system vulnerable to collapse. We conclude by imagining systems designed to safeguard the provision of criminal justice during emergencies.

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Garrett, Brandon L. and Tetlow, Tania, Criminal Justice Collapse: The Constitution after Hurricane Katrina. Duke Law Journal, Vol. 56, 2006, Tulane Public Law Research Paper No. 06-09, Available at SSRN:

Brandon L. Garrett (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States
919-613-7090 (Phone)


Tania Tetlow

Tulane University - School of Law ( email )

6329 Freret Street
New Orleans, LA 70118
United States

Here is the Coronavirus
related research on SSRN

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics