Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Over the past month and a half, about three-quarters of Louisiana district attorneys’ offices are reporting on how often they are seeking arrest warrants for key witnesses and victims of crime more than a year after they were required to begin doing so under a 2019 state law.  

According to the data, posted on the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement website, only four out of 33 offices that have submitted reports — Jefferson, Calcasieu, Caddo, and St. John the Baptist — reported obtaining at least one material witness warrant in 2020. The rest reported that they did not seek or obtain any such warrants. 

In total, those offices obtained six material witness warrants from judges, of which five were executed. Caddo Parish had the largest number of those, with three obtained and two executed.

Based on the report, which was last updated on Wednesday, nine DAs have yet to send any data to LCLE. 

“We are relieved and happy that they are complying with the new law, and relieved to hear that material witness warrant numbers are low,” said Simone Levine, executive director of Court WatchNOLA, which published a critical 2017 report on how the Orleans Parish DA’s Office used the warrants. “We encourage all district attorneys to comply with this process.”

Under the law, sponsored by former state Sen. J.P. Morrell, DA’s offices should have turned in their first material witness reports — covering 2019 — to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement in February of last year. And the first round of data should have been published the following month on the LCLE website. 

In June, The Lens found that prosecutors had failed to submit a single report, and neither the LCLE nor the legislature had ever pursued the information. Prompted by The Lens’ inquiries, the LCLE created a data submission form on June 18 and then began publishing the information it received, covering last year. Data for 2019 has still not been collected or published.  

The use of material witness warrants came under heightened scrutiny following the publication of the 2017 Court Watch NOLA report, which found that under then-Orleans Parish DA Leon Cannizzaro, New Orleans prosecutors secured the arrests of six victims of crime in 2016, including a rape victim who was jailed for eight days.  

Material witness warrants are particularly controversial in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence, because jailing victims may retraumatize them, and also because if victims are aware they could be jailed, they may be less likely to report the crime to law enforcement in the first place. According to the LCLE report, zero victims of sex crimes and domestic violence were jailed on material witness warrants last year. 

Criminal justice reform groups and crime victims’ advocates pushed to limit the use of the warrants, and in 2019, the legislature passed a law banning their use against victims in misdemeanor sex offenses or domestic violence cases and clarifying under what circumstances prosecutors could request them for victims in felony cases. 

The law also included the data reporting provision. The hope was that the reporting requirement would allow for greater oversight as well as disincentivize prosecutors from using the warrants. However, it did not contain a penalty against prosecutors for failing to submit the reports or against the LCLE for failing to publish the data. In June, Morrell said that likely explained the lack of compliance, but added that the bill would not have passed if it included penalties. 

Interviewed this week, Morrell said he was encouraged to see so few material witness warrants were sought last year compared to previous years.

“It would appear that the change in the law worked,” said former state Sen. J.P. Morrell who sponsored the bill. “The goal was to make material witness warrants so onerous to get that only in the most extreme cases would they even be applicable. And from the data that you’ve recovered thus far that’s been sent to you, it would appear that in comparison to how things were before we changed the law they were used much more readily.” 

Orleans DA’s Office says it has improved record-keeping

The data indeed show a significant decline in the use of material witness warrants in New Orleans. 

Records produced by Cannizzaro in 2018 showed that attempts to obtain the warrants — while relatively rare when weighed against the thousands of cases handled by New Orleans prosecutors — happened a dozen or more times per year on average between 2014 and 2016. Most were granted, and a substantial number of those resulted in arrests. 

Those numbers took months to produce, following an October 2017 request from the New Orleans City Council. (The council also requested data on the office’s use of fake subpoenas, which The Lens had sued to obtain months earlier following the office’s claim that locating the so-called “DA subpoenas” would be too burdensome.)

Finding the records back then took a manual search of more than 150,000 case files by 100 Orleans Parish DA’s Office employees. 

But after The Lens’ reporting brought attention to the reporting requirement in June, it took Orleans Parish DA Jason Williams’ office only a matter of days to respond to LCLE that it had applied for no material witness warrants last year.

“In an effort to create a 21st century prosecutor’s office, our office has implemented a new case management system, Prosecutor by Karpel, which will help us to track motions more effectively,” First Assistant DA Bob White told The Lens in a Thursday email.