Settlement guarantees independent external monitor and rigorous training to prevent ‘win at all costs’ mentality
NEW ORLEANS — The plaintiffs in Singleton et al. v. Cannizzaro have reached a historic settlement today with the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office (OPDA), bringing an end to OPDA’s years-long use of fake subpoenas and intimidation to illegally coerce and jail victims and witnesses, practices that became commonplace in the office under the supervision of former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. The settlement was reached with Orleans Parish’s new district attorney, Jason Williams.
In addition to ending those practices, the agreement outlines clear steps OPDA must take for internal supervision of the material witness warrant process, including conducting regular audits to ensure outstanding warrants are closed, documenting communications with survivors and witnesses, providing rigorous training, and more. DA Williams and OPDA also agreed to an independent external monitor to ensure the office complies with the agreement — a process that is rarely, if ever, agreed to by a district attorney.
“This settlement recognizes the harm that results when prosecutors operate with a ‘win at all costs’ mentality,” said Tara Mikkilineni, a senior attorney at Civil Rights Corps. “Prosecutors wield enormous power in the system and their actions are largely shielded from accountability. The courage of our clients in pursuing justice for the harms caused by Cannizzaro's office cannot be understated. Thanks to them, the DA has committed to reforms including unprecedented oversight of the office."
In 2017, Civil Rights Corps, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Louisiana, Venable LLP, SilenceIsViolence, and the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against then DA Cannizzaro and his office for fabricating subpoenas to coerce survivors and witnesses of harm into submitting to private, out-of-court interrogations — a direct violation of Louisiana law. The fake subpoenas bore OPDA’s official seal and threatened fines and imprisonment as penalties for noncompliance, adding false credibility to the coercive documents.
“This agreement is a win for the people of Orleans Parish, who deserve an end to this unlawful behavior,” said ACLU of Louisiana Legal Director Nora Ahmed. “Prosecutors are not above the law. Using bogus subpoenas to intimidate and jail witnesses and victims is an egregious abuse of power, and the ACLU of Louisiana is committed to holding the DA’s office accountable for violating the rights of the people they’re sworn to serve. This ruling is positive news for Louisianans, and everyone impacted by these cruel unlawful tactics. We hope it sends a signal to other prosecutors around the state that this conduct is unacceptable and will be challenged if it comes to the attention of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab initiative.”
Though the fake subpoenas had no legal effect, in some cases prosecutors used them as a basis for arresting witnesses to compel their testimony in court. Prosecutors under Cannizzaro also routinely abused their power to seek the arrest of material witnesses, misrepresenting information to the courts in applications for material witness arrest warrants and using the threat of arrest to force cooperation from reluctant witnesses. As a result, people who were not accused of any crime — and in many cases were themselves the victim of the crime — spent days, weeks, and even months in jail.
“We were pleased to partner with the ACLU and CRC to obtain this significant settlement and accountability from the New Orleans DA office,” said Sarah Sheldon Brooks, a partner at Venable LLP.
“This settlement is the culmination of a historic lawsuit that uncovered a host of unjust practices that went unchecked for far too long in Orleans Parish. We look forward to working with the monitor to ensure that the reforms we are instituting will meaningfully increase the accountability and integrity of the district attorney’s office,” said Molly Kovel, senior staff attorney in the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Prosecutors are rarely held accountable, and we hope that this settlement provides a template for achieving justice in other offices around the country.”
The settlement also provides significant financial compensation to the three remaining plaintiffs, Renata Singleton, Tiffany LaCroix, and Lazonia Baham, who suffered serious emotional and physical hardships as a result of OPDA’s coercive tactics. All the former plaintiffs who settled earlier received financial compensation as well, including organizational plaintiff SilenceIsViolence — an Orleans-based nonprofit that advocates for, represents, and provides services to victims of violent crime in the New Orleans community.
In the coming weeks, OPDA will begin implementing the requirements of the agreement with oversight by Katie Schwartzman, Tulane Law Professor of Practice and Director of the First Amendment Clinic. Professor Schwartzman, a civil rights lawyer and New Orleans native, will act as the independent monitor to ensure that OPDA complies with its obligations under the agreement.
This settlement is an important and historic step forward in protecting the rights of the people of Orleans Parish, and in ensuring that prosecutors, the very actors tasked with protecting the public, are held accountable to the communities they serve.