At a time when the abuses and inequities of the U.S. criminal justice system are increasingly scrutinized, a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in New Orleans reminds us that prosecutors have a great deal of power. And some of them abuse that power to the detriment of those who have not seen justice, disproportionately affecting the poor and Blacks.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in New Orleans accuses Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and ten of his subordinates of serious misconduct, namely, of coercing reluctant witnesses into testifying, issuing bogus subpoenas to get witnesses to come to the prosecutor’s office for interviews, and jailing witnesses for days.
“This civil rights action 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 reads. “The plaintiffs in this action are victims and witnesses of crime and a non-profit organization that advocates for victims in Orleans Parish. Each has been harmed by Defendants’ unconstitutional acts.” The ACLU of Louisiana and Civil Rights Corp, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, brought the action on behalf of Silence Is Violence — a group representing crime victims’ rights — and four people who were jailed or received “fake subpoenas” made to look like authentic court summonses.
According to the suit, these phony summonses create the false impression that meeting with the district attorney is required by law, with crime victims and witnesses threatened with fines, arrest and prison time if they fail to comply. The complaint further alleges that when the New Orleans prosecutors do not succeed with this coercive tactic they obtain arrest warrants to place these people in jail.
“In the past five years alone, Defendants have sought ‘material witness’ warrants at least 150 times. In a significant number of applications for these warrants, Defendants make false statements, omit material facts, and rely on plainly insufficient allegations no reasonable prosecutor would believe could justify the arrest of a witness or a victim of crime,” the complaint says, arguing these warrants would never be issued if the prosecutors told the truth.
The plaintiffs also claim the district attorney’s office routinely seeks high-money bonds for witnesses and victims, even as much as $500,000 — often far higher than the bond for criminal defendants — and sometimes no bond at all, to ensure they remain in jail. The prosecutors also allegedly deny prompt court appearances to victims, who typically wait weeks if not months before appearing before a judge. For example, the complaint claims that a child sex-trafficking victim was locked up for 89 days, including Christmas and New Year’s Day before her first court appearance, while a rape victim was jailed for 12 days before meeting with a judge to challenge her state of confinement. The lawsuit suggests this policy has a chilling effect on crime victims and witnesses who hope to exercise their right not to speak with the district attorney, for if they do, “they will face harassment, threats, arrest, and jail.”
Some crime victims have been treated like criminals themselves due to the district attorney’s practices, the plaintiffs allege, arrested in front of family members and their names placed in an arrest database. When Renata Singleton, a lead plaintiff in the case, refused to speak with prosecutors, the domestic violence victim said she was arrested and jailed for five days on a $100,000 bond. “Upon being booked into jail, Ms. Singleton’s clothes were taken, and she was given an orange jumpsuit. When she appeared in court, she was shackled at her hands and feet. Metal chains tethered her to the other prisoners,” the complaint said, while her former boyfriend and alleged abuser was released after paying $3,500 bond and was released, eventually sentenced to probation, and avoiding a prison sentence. Already faced with trauma, individuals such as Singleton must use limited resources on attorneys to address the prosecutors’ threats and unlawful conduct, the suit contends.
In addition, the lawsuit alleges the district attorney has threatened people with criminal charges for complaining about the misconduct. For example, after Tamara Jackson, the executive director of Silence Is Violence, submitted a formal complaint to the National District Attorney’s Association regarding the inadequate protections that Cannizzaro provides to crime victims, “Cannizzaro called Ms. Jackson and told her to be careful: if it appeared that she was encouraging victims not to communicate with his office, he could prosecute her for witness coercion.”
The district attorney also brought felony charges against a public defender for interacting with a witness and threatened two others, according to the complaint, and plaintiffs allege that public defenders now will not tell witnesses about their right not to speak to prosecutors for fear of prosecutorial retaliation.
This is by no means the first time the New Orleans justice system has been embroiled in controversy or the Orleans Parish D.A. implicated for misconduct. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations reveals that of 21 people from Orleans Parish who were wrongfully convicted and later released due to their innocence, 17 were imprisoned — with some even sentenced to death — due to misconduct from prosecutors and other officials.
One of those, John Thompson, spent 14 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, due in no small measure to misconduct from the Orleans Parish district attorney. Thompson was released in 2003 after a jury acquitted him in a murder retrial. In 2008 he won a $14 million civil suit, which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. John Thompson died earlier this month at age 55.
As prosecutors wield enormous power and have much discretion in who and what to charge, public defenders in Orleans Parish and elsewhere are in crisis. Louisiana is the world leader in incarceration, yet the state violates the rights of the poor because it cannot afford to pay its public defenders, with the system of legal representation to the indigent left underfunded and ineffective in providing justice.
This latest lawsuit from Orleans Parish is another example of the abusive practices of prosecutors who feed mass incarceration. It is no wonder that some choose to protest or take a knee in response to the injustices taking place in their midst by government officials.