District attorneys are some of the most powerful people in our criminal justice system. But too often, prosecutors engage in a reckless crusade to obtain convictions at any cost – flouting the law, violating the rights of the people they’re sworn to serve, and fueling a mass incarceration crisis of devastating proportions.
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro is one of them.
In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Louisiana and Civil Rights Corps sued to end Cannizzaro’s unconstitutional deception and jailing of crime victims and witnesses.
No crime victim or witness is required to submit to private, out-of-court interrogations unless lawfully subpoenaed. Cannizzaro didn’t like this rule, so he decided to break it by routinely issuing fake subpoenas that were not approved by a judge as required by law.
Victims and witnesses who failed to comply with these bogus documents were often thrown in jail – upending their lives and putting their families at risk. In addition to fabricating subpoenas to coerce crime victims and witnesses of crimes into submitting to interrogations, Cannizzaro’s office presented fraudulent information in court to persuade judges to issue arrest warrants.
Our client, Renata Singleton, was the victim in a criminal case and served five days in jail because she failed to follow the requests of a fake subpoena. She was terrified and worried about her children and about losing her job.
In fact, Cannizzaro’s office has asked the courts to put at least 150 victims and witnesses in jail and, in a significant number of these cases, prosecutors broke the law to do it. That’s why a recent ruling by a federal judge marked an important win for our client and for the cause of prosecutor accountability nationwide.
Rejecting Cannizzaro’s attempt to dismiss the case, U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo wrote that the district attorney’s subpoena practices, as alleged, amount to “systemic fraud” and “shock the conscience.” According to the judge, his request for immunity would “grant prosecutors a license to bypass the most basic checks on their authority.” We agree.
Judge Milazzo’s ruling should mean our case against Cannizzaro can proceed, and it sends a strong message that no prosecutor is above the law. However, Cannizzaro recently filed an appeal, rejecting the judge’s ruling and seeking to block the case from moving forward.
The lawsuit in Orleans Parish is a part of a larger effort to hold prosecutors accountable for abusive practices that fuel mass incarceration.
These efforts have included lawsuits in Orleans Parish; Orange County, Calif.; and Montgomery County, Kan., against sitting district attorneys, voter education and mobilization work in more than 40 district attorney races during the 2018 election cycle, and the development of model legislation that would create transparency standards that would ensure elected prosecutors can effectively be held accountable for their actions.
Here in Louisiana and across the country, there’s evidence that the tide is turning. A nationwide survey found that 89 percent of voters say it is very important for prosecutors to actively work towards ending mass incarceration with alternatives to prison. In 2018, pro-reform candidates ascended to powerful roles in cities like Birmingham, St. Louis and Boston, including a historic number of first-ever black and female district attorneys.
Working together, we can end these abusive practices once for all and build a criminal justice system that truly reflects the values and best interests of the people it serves.
This blog originally appeared on NOLA.com