(Reuters) - New Orleans prosecutors used forged subpoenas, false evidence and the threat of jail to create “a culture of fear” to compel crime victims and witnesses to cooperate with investigators, according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans on behalf of seven plaintiffs, accused Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and his assistants of routinely issuing fake subpoenas as well as jailing victims and witnesses who failed to cooperate.
“Defendants’ policies are designed to create a culture of fear and intimidation that chills crime victims and witnesses from asserting their constitutional rights,” said the 124-page complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Civil Rights Corp.
“As a result of these policies, crime victims and witnesses in Orleans Parish know that if they exercise their right not to speak with an investigating prosecutor, they will face harassment, threats, arrest and jail,” the complaint said.
Cannizzaro’s lawyer, David Fink, said he had not seen the complaint, and declined further comment. A request for comment left with Cannizzaro’s office was unanswered.
Anna Arceneaux, one of the ACLU lawyers who filed the complaint, said Orleans Parish prosecutors have for decades used fake subpoenas to try to coerce witnesses, but under Cannizzaro they were backed up with threats of jail.
To get reluctant witnesses or crime victims to meet with prosecutors investigating crimes, prosecutors are supposed to convince judges to issue subpoenas, showing “reasonable grounds” that private meetings are necessary, Arceneaux said.
“District Attorney Cannizzaro’s office has avoided that process altogether, (and) created its own illegal process where they’re sidestepping that judicial oversight entirely to secure these private meetings with witnesses and crime victims,” she said.
The suit also alleges that Cannizzaro’s office used false evidence, including the fake subpoenas, to get courts to issue material witness warrants, under which victims and witnesses are kept in jail while they are interrogated.
During the past five years, material witness warrants were issued 150 times and witnesses have been jailed with bonds ranging up to $500,000, the suit said, including a rape victim who spent 12 days in jail and a child sex trafficking victim who was jailed for 89 days before being able to challenge her confinement.
A judge earlier this year ordered Cannizzaro’s office to disclose the names of prosecutors who issued fake subpoenas cases, but that ruling is being appealed.
Editing by Scott Malone, G Crosse