Criminal Justice
 

Lawsuit: Orleans prosecutors violated people’s civil rights with systemic use of fake subpoenas

Steve Myers / The Lens

Until recently, The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office sent notices like this that threatened jail time if people didn’t come in for questioning. But they weren’t legal documents because they weren’t authorized by a judge. A new federal lawsuit alleges the practice was widespread and violated people’s constitutional rights.

Orleans Parish prosecutors obtained arrest warrants for at least 10 victims or witnesses in criminal cases because they did not obey fake subpoenas, attorneys allege in a civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday morning.

Six were jailed, according to the suit.

In several of those cases, the witnesses were held for days without seeing a judge — sometimes with bail set at $100,000 or more, higher than for the people accused of the underlying crimes.

The suit, brought by the ACLU and by the Civil Rights Corps, says the phony subpoenas are part of a pattern of violations of the U.S. Constitution and Louisiana law by District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and the prosecutors who work under him.

Cannizzaro has said repeatedly no one was jailed for disobeying a fake subpoena.

The lawsuit accuses prosecutors of misleading judges when they sought these arrest warrants, never mentioning that the “subpoenas” ignored by these witnesses were fake.

It even accuses someone in the DA’s office of forgery, pointing to one case in which an actual subpoena to appear in court was altered to appear as if the person had been ordered to a private meeting with prosecutors.

And when prosecutors used legal means at their disposal to arrest witnesses and victims, they often did it on weak, unreasonable or false pretexts, the suit says.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs allege at least 150 arrest warrants have been issued to victims and witnesses in the past five years.

The DA’s practice of jailing witnesses came under fire this year after a report by the watchdog group Court Watch NOLA.

Soon after, The Lens revealed that Orleans Parish prosecutors used fake subpoenas to pressure reluctant witnesses into coming to the DA’s office for private interviews.

State law allows prosecutors to compel witnesses to come to such meetings, but they must ask a judge for a subpoena, in writing. The “DA subpoenas,” as Cannizzaro’s office called them, were neither approved by a judge nor issued by the court clerk’s office, as the law requires.

Sending fake subpoenas and jailing witnesses is “designed to create a culture of fear and intimidation that chills crime victims and witnesses from asserting their constitutional rights,” the lawsuit alleges.

“As a result of these policies,” lawyers argue, “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 suit claims the DA’s office routinely violated witnesses’ First Amendment rights by retaliating against them for exercising their right to free speech, their Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful seizure by obtaining arrest warrants under false pretenses, and their right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment by having them jailed for extended periods without seeing a judge.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six victims and witnesses and the victim advocacy group Silence Is Violence. Cannizzaro and 10 of his assistant district attorneys are defendants.

The plaintiffs seek monetary damages and an injunction against the DA’s office, prohibiting it from further violating witnesses’ rights.

In a written statement, Cannizzaro said no one has contacted his office about the allegations.

“I look forward to litigating these issues in a venue where naked allegations must be supported by substantive proof,” he said. “I am confident that not only my office, but also the Assistant District Attorneys who have sacrificed so much for their community will be completely vindicated.”

Orleans Public Defenders reacted with a statement saying it wasn’t surprised by the allegations in the suit. “We repeatedly witness this district attorney’s willingness to try to win at all costs — ignoring law, ethics, and the best interests of the community.”

 

Fake subpoenas ‘widespread and systemic’

The six plaintiffs allege they were jailed or threatened with jail for failing to cooperate in criminal prosecutions.

Five of them received fake subpoenas, according to the complaint. The Lens has previously reported on three of them:

In the last case, when the teenager finally came in for a meeting, prosecutor Iain Dover mocked her, according to the lawsuit. When she wouldn’t answer questions, “he mimicked what she said in a whiny-sounding voice,” it alleges.

The Lens has reported six cases in which people got fake subpoenas. If the allegations in the lawsuit are true, that would mean Orleans Parish prosecutors have used them at least 15 times.

“Members of the criminal defense bar in Orleans Parish and former Assistant District Attorneys who worked under Defendant Cannizzaro confirm what this initial investigation suggests: the use of these fraudulent subpoenas has been widespread and systemic,” plaintiffs’ lawyers allege in the suit.

Chris Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro, initially defended the use of the notices, saying they were necessary to deal with uncooperative witnesses.

“Maybe in some places if you send a letter on the DA’s letterhead that says, ‘You need to come in and talk to us,’ … that is sufficient. It isn’t here,” he said. “That is why that looks as formal as it does.”

But the day The Lens revealed the practice, Cannizzaro halted it, calling it “improper.”

He has characterized them as largely harmless. “No one was incarcerated. No one was fined,” Cannizzaro said at a heated City Council meeting last month.

That’s not true, according to the suit.

“In the past three years, Orleans Parish prosecutors applied for arrest warrants for at least ten witnesses explicitly relying on an assertion that the witness did not ‘obey’ a fraudulent subpoena—without informing the court the subpoena was fraudulent,”  plaintiffs’ lawyers argue.

That includes some — such as an unidentified victim of alleged domestic violence at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, a New Orleans police officer — who never actually went to jail.

But at least six others did, according to the suit.

Domestic violence victim jailed for five days

One of them was Renata Singleton, an accountant who pressed domestic violence charges against her boyfriend Vernon Crossley in 2014. Soon after, she told a victim-witness advocate at the DA’s office that the relationship was over and she didn’t want to pursue charges, the lawsuit says.

Then in April 2015, a DA investigator dropped off two fake subpoenas ordering her to appear at Cannizzaro’s office, according to the lawsuit.

A friend in law enforcement, assuming they were valid subpoenas, told Singleton she didn’t have to obey them because they weren’t properly served. A subpoena can’t simply be left at someone’s door.

So she didn’t go.

Assistant District Attorney Arthur Mitchell sought an arrest warrant for Singleton, saying only that she had disobeyed “subpoenas.” He never told the judge they were fake, the complaint says.

The judge issued the warrant.

Singleton was arrested the next month after she refused to talk to Mitchell without a lawyer in the room. Her bail was initially set at $100,000.

She was jailed for five days before her first court appearance, when her bail was lowered to $5,000. Her mother posted it.

Singleton told her lawyers she had lost eight pounds in jail and fears her arrest record will impede her ability to find future jobs.

“Her arrest has left another mark as well: Ms. Singleton is afraid to ever call the police again,” the complaint says.

Crossley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to one year of probation.

Woman jailed for eight days after insisting she couldn’t identify suspect

The boyfriend of Lazonia Baham’s daughter was killed in 2013. Baham told DA investigators she had seen the suspect, Isaac Jones, on the day of the killing. But she couldn’t place him near the scene, the lawsuit says.

An investigator kept calling her, and she kept insisting that she couldn’t place him near the killing. Eventually, she stopped taking his calls, though she told Assistant District Attorney Jason Napoli she would testify in court if subpoenaed, according to the suit.

Over the next several months, she received what the complaint alleges were fake subpoenas demanding she meet with prosecutors. She ignored them.

Lawsuit filed by ACLU and Civil Rights Corps

In one case, according to the lawsuit, an alleged murder witness received a fake subpoena ordering him to talk to prosecutors in private. When the man didn\’t show up, a prosecutor texted a relative and threatened to arrest the man if he didn\’t meet with prosecutors.

In October 2015, Napoli applied for a material witness arrest warrant, claiming Baham had cut off contact with the DA’s office. According to the lawsuit, Napoli didn’t disclose that she had told him she would come to court.

She was arrested in late December 2015 and held for eight days on a $100,000 bond before she saw a judge.

At her first appearance, on Jan. 6, 2016, Napoli brought her into a room near the courtroom for a conference. The judge ordered a public defender to accompany her.

During the meeting, the complaint says, the public defender advised her that she didn’t have to answer Napoli’s questions. Napoli became so angry with the other lawyer that Baham, confused, believed the public defender was Napoli’s intern. She didn’t want him to get in trouble, so she asked him to leave.

When they were alone, the complaint says, Napoli asked if she had seen Jones near the scene of the murder. Again, she said no.

“Defendant Napoli then asked Ms. Baham if she knew what perjury was,” the complaint says.

Baham was released that day. According to the lawsuit, she has stuck to her story in subsequent court appearances.

Jones is awaiting trial for murder.

Suit alleges employee in DA’s office forged subpoena

In another case, Keith McGuire, a battery victim identified in the complaint as “KM,” was jailed earlier this year for failing to respond to what plaintiffs’ lawyers say was a forged subpoena.

Unlike other cases The Lens has found, in which prosecutors used a “DA subpoena” form, this one looked like a genuine court subpoena.

But it didn’t order him to appear in court on March 6 for the next hearing; it told him to appear at the DA’s office on March 3 for a meeting at the DA’s office.

Plaintiffs lawyers allege someone at the DA’s office printed out a genuine subpoena from the court’s subpoena system, CourtNotify, and altered the date and the text.

“This forgery is apparent,” lawyers allege, “because the individual who altered the document neglected to change the text at the bottom of the subpoena marking the appearance date: on the March 3rd document, the appearance date is still listed as March 6th.”

This individual also neglected to remove each of the multiple references to the ‘court’ and replace them with references to the District Attorney’s Office.”



Fake subpoenas related to tactic of jailing witnesses and victims

More broadly, the suit attacks the way Orleans Parish prosecutors have jailed witnesses and victims through the use of material witness warrants, including cases in which they didn’t use fake subpoenas.

State law allows prosecutors to request arrest warrants for essential witnesses if they can demonstrate the witness would be unlikely to obey a subpoena to testify in court.

According to lawyers for the plaintiffs, some victims and witnesses languished in jail for weeks or months before they saw a judge for a bail review hearing. Under state law, that should happen within 72 hours of arrest.

A rape victim was jailed for 12 days before seeing a judge, according to the lawsuit.

Cannizzaro has defended the these arrest warrants as the “last line of defense“ to bring in extremely reluctant witnesses.

Plaintiffs lawyers contend prosecutors have cited flimsy reasons in applying for the warrants: because witnesses missed appointments with prosecutors or because they failed to respond to calls, emails and Facebook messages. In one case, a prosecutor sought an arrest warrant  because a witness did “not have a current address.”

In another case identified in the suit, a child sex trafficking victim was allegedly jailed for 89 days before even being brought before a judge for a bail review — far beyond the legal limit of three days. In all, she spent more than 100 days in jail, according to the suit.

“She was arrested on Thanksgiving Day and spent Christmas and New Year’s Day in a jail cell away from her infant daughter,” lawyers allege. “When [the victim] left the jail, she had lost her housing and began living on the street. Shortly thereafter, [the victim] lost custody of her child.”

Read the lawsuit



Fake subpoena civil rights lawsuit: Singleton v Cannizzaro (Text)

This story was updated after publication to include comments from Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and Orleans Public Defenders. (Oct. 17, 2017)

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