NEW ORLEANS – A U.S. district court judge ruled yesterday that a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro for jailing and coercing crime victims with fake subpoenas can proceed.
“The judge soundly rejected Cannizzaro's attempt to evade responsibility for his actions and sent a clear message that prosecutors are not above the law,” said Bruce Hamilton, staff attorney with the ACLU of Louisiana. “Using bogus subpoenas to intimidate and jail witnesses and victims is an egregious abuse of power, and we're committed to holding the DA accountable for violating the rights of the people he's sworn to serve. This ruling is positive news for the people of Orleans Parish and everyone impacted by the DA's cruel and unlawful tactics.”
In rejecting Cannizzaro’s motion to dismiss the case, Judge Jane Triche Milazzo wrote that the District Attorney’s subpoena practices amount to “systemic fraud” and “shock the conscience,” and that his request for immunity would “grant prosecutors a license to bypass the most basic legal checks on their authority.”
In October 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Louisiana, and Civil Rights Corps filed a lawsuit against Cannizzaro and ten assistant district attorneys to end the unconstitutional deception, intimidation, and jailing of crime victims and witnesses.
“District attorneys across the country should take notice: Nobody is above the law, least of all those who are trusted to enforce it,” said Molly Kovel, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality. “We’re delighted that this case is moving forward so that we can hold DA Cannizzaro accountable for disregarding and abusing the rights of the people and communities he was elected to serve.”
The lawsuit detailed District Attorney Cannizzaro’s illegal scheme of fabricating subpoenas to coerce crime victims and witnesses of crimes into submitting to interrogations, and presenting fraudulent information in court to persuade judges to issue arrest warrants. For crime victims and witnesses who don’t appear as ordered, the District Attorney’s Office further abuses its power and authority to have these witnesses, who are often the victims of crimes, put in jail.
“At the heart of this case are the people of Orleans Parish who have been victimized by District Attorney Cannizzaro and the prosecutors whose job is to protect them,” said Katie Chamblee-Ryan, an Attorney for Civil Rights Corps who represents the plaintiffs. “The plaintiffs in this case are crime victims and witnesses who prosecutors tried to coerce with fake subpoenas and in some cases jailed to pressure them to comply with their demands. Our investigation found that the misconduct of the officials was egregious and systemic, and it came straight from the top. This decision is a win for the people of Orleans Parish who deserve an end to this unlawful behavior.”
No crime victim or witness is required to submit to private, out-of-court interrogations by prosecutors unless lawfully subpoenaed, and DA Cannizzaro’s fake subpoenas were not approved by a judge, as required by law. The suit seeks to end these practices once and for all, and will now move forward.
The lawsuit in Orleans Parish is a part of a larger effort by the ACLU to hold prosecutors accountable for abusive practices that fuel mass incarceration. These efforts have included lawsuits in Orleans Parish; Orange County, California; and Montgomery County, Kansas against sitting district attorneys, voter education and mobilization work in over 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.