Criminal Justice
 

New Orleans district attorney unearths 249 ‘DA subpoenas’ issued over three years

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office has discovered 249 “DA subpoenas,” many of which appear to be improperly issued fake subpoenas, after searching computer records and boxes of case files for nearly eight months.

The office also turned over 50 court filings seeking to arrest crime victims and witnesses for allegedly failing to cooperate. Almost all of those were granted; 16 people were arrested.

As The Lens first reported last year, prosecutors sent what they called “DA subpoenas” to pressure reluctant witnesses to appear for private interviews with prosecutors. Those documents were marked “SUBPOENA” and threatened jail and fines for failing to obey, but they were not authorized by a judge or issued by a court clerk, as required by law.

Legal experts and defense attorneys told The Lens that the use of the documents was unethical, if not illegal.

District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro ended the practice the same day The Lens exposed the practice. The office was later sued in federal court by the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps over its use of phony subpoenas.

District attorneys in Jefferson Parish and on the North Shore used similar notices; they too immediately halted the practice.

The 249 “DA subpoenas” were issued in New Orleans cases that were closed between 2014 and 2016.

This is the first sign of how often Orleans Parish prosecutors used the bogus documents. The DA’s office has said they were used rarely and that it would be practically impossible to find them.

In a letter sent to City Council President Jason Williams last week, Cannizzaro suggested 70 percent of the notices his office found were innocuous. Some simply reminded cooperating witnesses to show up in court. Others went to police officers.

And some, Cannizzaro wrote, were “proof of attendance.” Assistant District Attorney David Pipes said in an October court hearing that prosecutors sometimes gave people DA subpoenas so they could could be excused from work or school.

“Not one of these ‘DA subpoena’ documents by themselves resulted in anyone’s arrest or detention,” Cannizzaro wrote.

The Lens obtained the documents Monday afternoon and has not thoroughly reviewed them. We are holding off on publishing them until we know more about the witnesses and the cases.

Several fake subpoenas previously discovered by The Lens are not included in the records, possibly because those cases were not resolved before the end of 2016.

A spokesman for Cannizzaro said he was not immediately able to respond to The Lens’ questions for this story.

From 2014 to 2016, the DA’s office found 50 instances in which prosecutors sought arrest warrants for witnesses or victims because they allegedly refused to cooperate. Those are known as material witness warrants.

Forty-eight of those applications were granted, and 16 resulted in an arrest, Cannizzaro wrote.

The records partly satisfy a judgment in a public records lawsuit filed last year by The Lens after the DA’s office denied our request for fake subpoenas issued in 2016 and 2017. Cannizzaro has appealed the ruling.

In a first pass last year, the DA’s office searched cases that prosecutors decided not to pursue. That search turned up only one fake subpoena.

But the 249 documents were not unearthed because the DA’s office was trying to satisfy the court ruling. Instead, the office was responding to a demand from the New Orleans City Council to say how often it used “DA subpoenas” and material witness warrants.

In November, Cannizzaro said answering those questions would require a manual review of tens of thousands of case files. He estimated that would take six months.

Late last month, Williams fired off a letter to Cannizzaro noting that nearly seven months had passed and the request hadn’t been fulfilled.

The DA’s office paid the company that stores its old files $118,656.51 to pull the files, Cannizzaro wrote in his letter. He wrote that more than 100 employees spent more than 4,000 hours on the task.

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.