Criminal Justice
 

Orleans Parish DA turns over first fake subpoena found in its files

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office gave The Lens a copy of a fake subpoena Monday used last year in a prostitution case. It’s the first one handed over after a judge ruled that the public is entitled to see the documents.

The Lens sued District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro after he refused a public-records request for the documents. The DA’s office contended that finding the so-called “DA subpoenas” would be too difficult, requiring a manual review of tens of thousands of cases.

Last month, however, Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese ordered the office to look through its records and provide fake subpoenas in closed cases, beginning with those in which the office decided not to pursue charges.

Reese gave the DA’s office until Thursday to provide those records. Next, the DA’s office must provide fake subpoenas in other cases closed between January 2016 and April 2017.

“Throughout this case, The Lens has maintained that searching for these records was well within the DA’s capability, and the fact that they complied early confirms just that,” said Lens attorney Scott Sternberg, of Sternberg, Naccari & White.

According to a news release from the DA’s office, its employees searched 45 boxes containing about 1,500 cases and found only one phony subpoena. The review took “more than 110 man hours,” the news release said.

“While I respect the judge’s decision and continue to comply with the court’s order, it is worth repeating that upon receipt of a public complaint, we immediately reviewed our procedures and ceased using these rarely seen documents,” Cannizzaro said in the news release. “Though this search continues to tax and deplete our office’s manpower, we will continue our effort until the judge’s order is satisfied.”

Like other fake subpoenas The Lens has reported on, the document provided Monday ordered the recipient to appear at the DA’s office to speak with a prosecutor, in this case Assistant District Attorney Payal Patel. It threatened jail time and fines if the victim didn’t obey.

Prosecutors can get a subpoena ordering people to come in for a meeting, but a judge has to authorize it. The DA’s office didn’t do that, opting instead to send documents that purported to be real subpoenas.

Legal experts and defense lawyers called the practice unethical, if not illegal. District attorneys in Jefferson Parish and on the North Shore have also halted the use of similar, misleading notices.

The Lens has reported on six cases in which people got fake subpoenas, including the victim of alleged domestic violence, an acquaintance of the man who killed former Saints football player Will Smith and the teenage victim in a molestation case.

Lawyers for the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps found more cases, including six in which people were jailed for failing to obey the documents. The two groups sued Cannizzaro and his prosecutors, alleging they violated people’s civil rights.

The recipient of the fake subpoena turned over Monday was the victim in a prostitution case. The victim’s name and address were redacted. Law enforcement officials are not required to disclose any information that would reveal the identity of an alleged sex crime victim.

According to the news release, the victim was an acquaintance of defendant Reginald Davis. A DA’s employee reviewing the case for prosecution tried to contact the victim at a phone number she had given police, but the number didn’t work.

An investigator for the DA’s office delivered the fake subpoena to the victim’s home in August 2016, ordering her to come in the next day. Another resident, whose name is also redacted, accepted the phony subpoena and provided a working number for the victim.

When an employee of the DA’s office called the victim, she said she didn’t want to pursue the charge, according to the news release. The screener asked her again to come in, but she refused.

Prosecutors formally refused the case on Aug. 29, 2016, according to an online court record. The Lens was not immediately able to verify other parts of the DA’s account.

Defense attorney Jason Cantrell, who represented Davis, said he did not recall the case well and didn’t know a fake subpoena had been used.

It’s not clear if the DA’s search has gone beyond the case files themselves. After the DA’s office said it would be too hard to find the fake subpoenas themselves, The Lens asked to see related records, including internal communications and prosecutors’ case notes. That request was denied, too.

In a court hearing this month regarding a different public records lawsuit, Assistant District Attorney Scott Vincent said he wasn’t sure each fake subpoena had even made it into a case file.

Employees in the office are also searching case files from 2014 to 2016 for evidence of fake subpoenas, in response to a request from the New Orleans City Council. That includes some 1,500 boxes of records, according to the DA’s office.

Earlier this month, the DA’s office said it hadn’t found any fake subpoenas in the first 100 boxes.

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