NEW ORLEANS — To end the unconstitutional deception and jailing of crime victims and witnesses by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, Civil Rights Corps, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU of Louisiana filed a lawsuit today in federal court against District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and ten assistant district attorneys. The lawsuit details District Attorney Cannizzaro’s illegal scheme of fabricating subpoenas to coerce crime victims and witnesses of crimes into submitting to interrogations, and presenting fraudulent information in court to persuade judges to issue arrest warrants. For crime victims and witnesses who don’t appear as ordered, the District Attorney’s Office further abuses its power and authority to have these witnesses, who are victims of crimes, put in jail.
“When the officer brought me to the jail, I started to cry,” said Renata Singleton, a victim of domestic violence and a plaintiff in today’s lawsuit who was jailed for five days after not responding to fake subpoenas from District Attorney Cannizzarro’s office. “I was so worried about my three children back at home. I called my sister in a panic to have her take care of them. I’d just started a new job, and I was terrified of losing it.” Ms. Singleton’s bond was set at $100,000. Ms. Singleton’s ex-boyfriend, who pled guilty to the charges, had a bond of $3,500 and was sentenced to probation without jail time.
“This case is not about isolated acts of misconduct. It is about pervasive abuses of power that have led to the harassment, humiliation, and imprisonment of witnesses and crime victims in New Orleans,” said Katie Chamblee-Ryan, an attorney at Civil Rights Corps and the coordinator of its Prosecutor Project. “This district attorney’s office has asked the courts to put at least 150 victims and witnesses in jail. In a significant number of these cases, they broke the law to do it. Our plaintiffs want to ensure that the district attorney’s office can never harm anyone this way again.”
The fake subpoenas sent by District Attorney Cannizzaro’s office threaten recipients with fines or imprisonment if they don’t meet with prosecutors, but these documents have no legal force. No crime victim or witness is required to submit to private, out-of-court interrogations by prosecutors unless lawfully subpoenaed. The fake subpoenas hadn’t been approved by a judge, as required by Louisiana law. The district attorney’s office used the fake subpoenas in a variety of criminal cases, including second-degree murder and disturbing the peace.
“The people of Orleans Parish elected District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to uphold the Louisiana law and the U.S. Constitution, yet he has deliberately and repeatedly broken the law and obliterated the rights of some of the parish’s most vulnerable residents: crime victims and witnesses,” said Anna Arceneaux, senior staff attorney with the ACLU. “This lawsuit marks the end of an era where top prosecutors can break the law with impunity, and prosecutors across the country should expect to be held accountable for these kinds of abuses of power.”
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country.
“Louisiana is ground zero for the fight against mass incarceration, but we know we are not unique when it comes to top prosecutors who seek punishment at any costs instead of building trust with their communities to achieve justice,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “We are glad to be taking on District Attorney Cannizzarro’s abuses directly, and sending a message to other prosecutors in Louisiana and across the country that their abuses will be challenged.”
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Lazonia Baham, was jailed for eight days after receiving fake subpoenas and declining to meet privately with prosecutors. Her daughter’s boyfriend had been murdered, and before receiving the fake subpoenas, Ms. Baham told District Attorney Cannizzaro’s office that she had seen the man accused of the murder around the corner from her house on the day of the killing. An assistant district attorney pressured Ms. Baham to say she had seen him in another location. She refused, and later, when she received the fake subpoenas, she didn’t go to the district attorney’s office. Ms. Baham was arrested and held without bond at the request of District Attorney Cannizzaro’s office.
Tamara Jackson is executive director of Silence Is Violence, a New Orleans organization that is a plaintiff in today’s lawsuit and that advocates for victims of crime and for safer communities. “One of the reasons Silence Is Violence formed was because when folks were coordinating with the DA’s office, often times their rights were infringed upon, they were abused by the system,” said Jackson. “It’s about getting what they [prosecutors] want and achieving their objectives, regardless of what the person is faced with.”
Plaintiff Marc Mitchell was shot multiple times while playing basketball with his nephews. He met with District Attorney Cannizzaro’s office several times and testified in court against the person charged with the shooting. After that conviction, an assistant district attorney met with Mr. Mitchell about a man the prosecutor’s office suspected of directing the shooting, but Mr. Mitchell felt pressured to say that he had seen something about the second man that he had not. When he declined to meet again with prosecutors, Cannizzaro’s office told a judge falsehoods about Mr. Mitchell to obtain an arrest warrant, such as alleging that had bought a bus ticket to leave town. Mr. Mitchell was arrested at the hotel where he worked, handcuffed, and taken by police through the hotel lobby in full view of hotel customers and his coworkers. He was released from jail a day later because a friend who works in the court system brought his case to the attention of a judge.
The Prosecutor Project at Civil Rights Corps brings aggressive, innovative litigation to hold prosecutors accountable for systemic misconduct. Prosecutors like District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro can’t be permitted to abuse their authority and break the law with impunity. The Prosecutor Project is committed to zealous advocacy on behalf of the many vulnerable individuals harmed by prosecutorial misconduct.
The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice — an unprecedented effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50% and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system — has launched a new multi-year initiative to make sure that prosecutors who break the law are held accountable for fueling mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, through legislative advocacy, voter education, and litigation. This lawsuit against the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office is the first of many to come across the country as we work towards much-needed prosecutorial reform.
For the complaint and more information about Singleton v. Cannizzaro:
Civil Rights Corps:
ACLU of Louisiana:
For more about prosecutorial reform:
Civil Rights Corps’ Prosecutor Project:
ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice:
A short video about Singleton v. Cannizzaro, including interviews with plaintiffs, is available here:
ProRes file (no music): https://www.dropbox.com/sh/qalf96ybohqjvx1/AADO14-35GDF5Gl4d-spDSo4a?dl=0