Criminal Justice
 

Cannizzaro appeals ruling allowing fake subpoena suit to go forward

The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office is appealing a ruling by a federal judge last month allowing a federal civil rights case over prosecutors’ use of fake subpoenas and practice of seeking arrest warrants against crime victims and witnesses.

Attorneys representing Cannizzaro and 11 assistant district attorneys named in the suit on Tuesday filed a notice in federal court that they will appeal the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The suit was filed by the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps in late 2017 and based in part on The Lens’ reporting on fake subpoenas, documents that falsely appeared to be genuine subpoenas that were used to pressure witnesses to meet privately with prosecutors. Filed on behalf of seven witnesses or victims and crime victims advocacy group Silence is Violence, the suit claims that the use of the subpoenas, as well as the alleged misuse of material witness warrants — used to arrest witnesses for allegedly failing to cooperate with prosecutors — violated people’s constitutional rights. The suit also accuses the DA’s office of fraud under state law.

In a motion to dismiss last year, the DA’s office argued that it was protected by absolute prosecutorial immunity, a longstanding legal doctrine that shields prosecutors from civil liability for actions taken as part of their core duties as advocates for the state. Cannizzaro’s attorneys also said that individual prosecutors named in the complaint were eligible for qualified immunity, which applies to actions taken outside of their “judicial role,” such as their role as investigators. In those cases, prosecutors can be held immune as long as they were not violating anyone’s clearly established rights or federal law.

The ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Jane Triche Milazzo found that immunity did not apply to allegations that the DA’s office itself — rather than individual prosecutors — allegedly violated the witnesses’ rights. And absolute immunity didn’t apply to what she called the “allegations of systematic fraud” alleged by the plaintiffs.

Of nine misconduct counts in the lawsuit, Milazzo’s ruling rejected only one in its entirety, though she removed individual prosecutors from many of the remaining counts, finding that they enjoyed qualified immunity.

Details on the basis of the appeal were not available Tuesday morning. A spokesman for Cannizzaro did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this story. Matthew Paul, an attorney representing Cannizzaro and the other defendants, said that he could not immediately comment without requesting authorization.

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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.