When New Orleans accountant Renata Singleton, 37, appeared in court after spending five days in jail on a $100,000 bond, she was wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackled at her hands and feet. Singleton was not on trial, though. She was a crime victim.
Singleton had been jailed after ignoring two fake subpoenas sent to her by the Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office for private meetings with prosecutors, who then obtained an arrest warrant that relied "on false, misleading, and plainly insufficient" facts, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Singleton's former boyfriend, on trial for abusing her, had already been released on a $3,500 bond, appeared in court in his own clothes, pled guilty to two misdemeanors, received probation, and didn't spend a day in jail.
Singelton is one of several named plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed today against Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office for using fake subpoenas to coerce witnesses and crime victims into testifying. The suit was filed by the ACLU and Civil Rights Corps, on behalf of six New Orleans residents subjected to such tactics and Silence is Violence, a local anti-violence advocacy group.
"Defendants' policies are designed to create a culture of fear and intimidation that chills crime victims and witnesses from asserting their constitutional rights," the suit says. "As a result of these policies, 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 Lens first reported New Orleans prosecutors' use of fake subpoenas this April. The news outlet obtained copies of letters that ordered residents to meet with Orleans Parish prosecutors to discuss crimes they might have witnessed. The letters weren't authorized by a judge but gave every other indication of being official court documents. "A FINE AND IMPRISONMENT MAY BE IMPOSED FOR FAILURE TO OBEY THIS NOTICE," one such letter declared.
Cannizzaro's office initially defended the practice. But shortly after it learned that legal experts had told The Lens that such letters were likely illegal, it announced that it would stop. Follow-up investigations revealed that Cannizzaro's office attempted to obtain an arrest warrant against a domestic violence victim who ignored a fake subpoena.
"I'm a longtime crime defense lawyer whose worked all over the country, and I've never seen anything like this in my career," Anna Arceneaux, an ACLU senior staff attorney on the case, says. "The process in Louisiana is very specific and mentions the reason for court oversight: to prevent prosecutorial abuse. Cannizzaro's office completely sidestepped that procedure and created its own system of coercing witness testimony and compelling people to attend private meetings in their office."
The lawsuit alleges that Cannizzaro's office often used heavy-handed tactics to intimidate witnesses into testifying. When potential witnesses refused to provide prosecutors with private meetings, which are not compulsary unless accompanied by a lawful order, the district attorney's office obtained "material witness" warrants from judges to jail them until trial.
According to the suit, Cannizzaro's office has sought "material witness" warrants at least 150 times. "In a significant number of applications for these warrants," the lawsuit says, Cannizzaro's office made false statements and omitted material facts. "If prosecutors told the whole story, these warrants would never be issued."
Arceneaux says in many of those cases, prosecutors used witnesses refusal to comply with fraudulent subpoenas as justification for imprisonment.
Cannizzaro's office also sought exorbitant bonds, sometimes up to $500,000, or no bond at all to keep witnesses in custody. Jailed witnesses then had to languish behind bars for long periods before they could even appear in court to challenge their imprisonment.
"One rape victim spent 12 days in jail before her first court appearance," the suit says. "A victim of child sex trafficking was jailed for 89 days—including Christmas and New Year's Day—before she had an opportunity to challenge her confinement."
The lawsuit is seeking a court injunction to permanently bar Cannizzaro's office from using such tactics, plus monetary damages for its six named plaintiffs.
The lawsuit is a joint effort between the ACLU and Civil Rights Corps, two civil rights organizaitons which have both embarked on a major initiatives to increase oversight and public awareness of the role prosecutors play in the criminal justice system. "This is our first lawsuit to really challenge and hopefully change the landscape, so prosecutors who've been used to operating without any oversight will know they'll be held accountable," Arceneaux says.
The Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office did not immediately return a request for comment.