A victim of domestic violence who was jailed for five days is among a group of people suing Orleans Parish, La., District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and 10 of his subordinates, alleging that prosecutors used dirty tricks to force witnesses to testify, reports The Advocate. The federal lawsuit takes aim at the prosecutor’s controversial use of so-called “fake subpoenas” to pressure witnesses to talk, as well as arresting material witnesses who refuse to cooperate. Cannizzaro has ended the former practice. Arrest warrants for material witnesses are legal in Louisiana. However, the lawsuit alleges that they were obtained as part of a larger pattern of “extrajudicial and unlawful” practices that often left victims sitting in jail for long periods without a lawyer. The prosecutor’s office has “been violating the fundamental rights of the community by issuing subpoenas that are false, and by arresting and incarcerating people who have done nothing wrong,” said Marjorie Esman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.
The ACLU is suing along with the Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, on behalf of six people who received “fake subpoenas” or spent time in jail as witnesses. The crime victims’ rights group Silence Is Violence is also a plaintiff. The suit seeks financial damages and an injunction preventing Cannizzaro from using similar tactics in the future. For years, the District Attorney’s Office sent potential witnesses notices stamped “subpoena” that said they could be fined or imprisoned if they failed to meet with prosecutors for an interview before a trial. The supposed subpoenas did not have the approval of a judge, as required by state law. Although he has discontinued the use of the fake subpoenas, Cannizzaro has defended the arrest of skittish witnesses as a necessary tool in a city with a seemingly endless cycle of violence. The New Yorker reports that the New Orleans prosecutor’s practice is being used around the U.S.