New Orleans DA agrees to oversight to settle suit over fake subpoenas and witness intimidation
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Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams has agreed to settle a lawsuit alleging that his predecessor’s office used fake subpoenas to pressure victims and witnesses to privately meet with prosecutors.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, announced the settlement in an Oct. 5 press release.
Plaintiffs in the suit included witnesses and crime victims who received fake subpoenas or were arrested under false pretenses.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans had refused to toss the suit in April 2020.
The suit had claimed that Williams’ predecessors used fake subpoenas to coerce survivors and witnesses to submit to private out-of-court, off-the-record interrogations. In some cases, prosecutors used fake subpoenas as a basis for arresting witnesses to compel their court testimony. In others, prosecutors submitted false information to courts to obtain material arrest warrants against noncooperating witnesses.
As a result of the abuses, people who weren’t accused of crimes were forced to spend time in jail, the suit alleged.
Williams had first opposed the fake subpoenas when he was a city council member and news reports said then-District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro was using them.
In the settlement, Williams agreed that his office will not use any document that purports to be a subpoena without legal authorization by a judge. He also agreed to establish office procedures to monitor material witness warrants and to use an independent external monitor to ensure compliance.
The agreement also bars New Orleans prosecutors from seeking material arrest warrants in misdemeanor cases and when the witness is known to be pregnant or to have serious health issues, according to NOLA.com. Material arrest warrants can’t be obtained against crime victims in felony cases, unless there are “exceptional circumstances.”
Plaintiffs remaining in the lawsuit will also receive “significant financial compensation” in the settlement, according to the press release.
The monitor will be Katie Schwartzman, a professor at the Tulane University Law Schoo who directs the law school’s First Amendment Law Clinic. She was previously with the ACLU.
The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Louisiana, the Civil Rights Corps and Venable.