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ACLU Files Suit Against New Orleans DA for Using Fake Subpoenas to Coerce Victims and Witnesses in Criminal Cases

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The national American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Louisiana and the Civil Rights Corps filed a lawsuit against Orleans Parish, La., District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and 10 of his assistant district attorneys over their use of fake subpoenas to coerce victims and witnesses in criminal cases to come in and be questioned by the district attorney’s office.

The 62-page complaint was filed Tuesday morning in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana as a civil rights action that “challenges the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office’s unconstitutional policy of using extrajudicial and unlawful means to coerce, arrest and imprison crime victims and witnesses.”

The complaint accuses Cannizzaro’s office of issuing fabricated subpoenas directly from the office “without any judicial approval or oversight” to “coerce victims and witnesses into submitting to interrogations by prosecutors outside of court.”

As previously reported on The Root, Tiffany Lacroix received one such notice in November ordering her to meet with a prosecutor about the upcoming trial of Cardell Hayes, who was charged with murdering former New Orleans Saints player Will Smith. The notice had “Subpoena” printed at the top and warned, in capital letters, that “A Fine and Imprisonment May Be Imposed for Failure to Obey This Notice,” but the notice wasn’t authorized by a judge; nor was it issued by the clerk of court, which normally sends out subpoenas.

Lacroix is named as a plaintiff in Tuesday’s filing.

“These fraudulent documents create the false impression that meeting with the District Attorney is required by law, and they threaten crime victims and witnesses with fines, arrest, and imprisonment if they do not obey. If that unlawful coercion does not succeed, Defendants routinely obtain arrest warrants to put crime victims and witnesses in jail,” the complaint reads.

According to the complaint, Cannizzaro’s office has sought at least 150 “material witness” warrants in the past five years, and in a significant number of those applications, the office used false statements, omitted material facts and relied on insufficient allegations “no reasonable prosecutor would believe could justify the arrest of a witness or a victim of crime.”

Once the victims or witnesses are jailed, the complaint alleges, Cannizzaro’s office habitually seeks exorbitant bail amounts that often “dwarf” the bond set for the criminal defendants themselves and leave the witnesses and victims languishing in jail, sometimes long after the defendant has already been released.

“Defendants then deny victims a prompt court appearance, where the victim could challenge her detention or the conditions of her release. As a result, victims and witnesses routinely wait weeks or even months in jail before they are brought before a judge. One rape victim spent 12 days in jail before her first court appearance. A victim of child sex trafficking was jailed for 89 days—including Christmas and New Year’s Day—before she had an opportunity to challenge her confinement,” the complaint reads.

The complaint accuses Cannizzaro’s office of creating a culture of fear and intimidation that scares crime victims and witnesses into not asserting their constitutional rights.

As a result of this culture of fear and intimidation, crime victims and witnesses know that if they exercise their right not to speak with Cannizzaro’s office, they will be subjected to harassment, threats, arrest and jail.

Another plaintiff in the case, Renata Singleton, was a victim in a domestic violence case. When she declined to speak with Cannizzaro’s office, she was arrested and jailed for five days on $100,000 bond, according to the complaint. When she was booked into the jail, her clothing was taken and she was given an orange jumpsuit. It was in that same orange jumpsuit that she appeared in court, shackled at her hands and feet and tethered to other prisoners by a metal chain.

Her former boyfriend and alleged abuser had paid a $3,500 bond and was released after his arraignment. He appeared in court in his own clothing, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to probation, avoiding jail altogether, according to the complaint.

The complaint accuses Cannizzaro’s office of violating the U.S. Constitution as well as Louisiana law.

The plaintiffs in the case are seeking “declaratory and injunctive relief requiring Defendant Cannizzaro to permanently end these unconstitutional and illegal policies, and monetary damages against all individual Defendants who violated their rights.”

Read the full complaint here and below: