A victim of domestic violence who was jailed for five days is among a group of people suing Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and 10 of his subordinates, alleging that prosecutors used dirty tricks to force witnesses to testify.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, takes aim at the New Orleans 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 since 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.

“District Attorney Cannizzaro and some of his assistant prosecutors have 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, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

“That’s not what law enforcement is supposed to be. That’s not what prosecution is supposed to be,” she said.

The ACLU is bringing the suit along with the Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based legal 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 named as a plaintiff.

The plaintiffs seek 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. But 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 continuing arrest of skittish witnesses as a necessary tool in a city with a seemingly endless cycle of violence. As recently as Monday, his office asked judges to arrest witnesses who threaten not to appear at trial.

"No individual who alleges that they were aggrieved by my office’s policies and practices has contacted me," Cannizzaro said in a statement about the lawsuit. "I look forward to litigating these issues in a venue where naked allegations must be supported by substantive proof. I am confident that not only my office but also the assistant district attorneys who have sacrificed so much for their community will be completely vindicated."

One of the plaintiffs is Renata Singleton, who was working as an accountant for the KIPP charter school system in November 2014 when she got into a fight with her then-boyfriend, Vernon Crossley. Police said that Crossley pulled her cellphone out of her hand and shattered it. He was arrested and released the next day.

Crossley was the defendant in the case, but Singleton was also forced to endure a long legal saga, according to the lawsuit. Soon after the incident, she told a representative of the District Attorney’s Office that she had ended her relationship with Crossley and wanted to move on.

In April 2015, she received two “fraudulent” subpoenas telling her to report to the DA’s headquarters, according to the lawsuit. When she failed to do so, Assistant District Attorney Arthur Mitchell IV requested a material witness warrant, according to the lawsuit.

The suit claims that Singleton did eventually appear at the DA’s office, but she was arrested regardless when she refused to talk without a lawyer.

Mitchell is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit in connection with the case, as well as Assistant District Attorneys Tiffany Tucker, David Pipes and a John Doe.

“When the officer brought me to the jail, I started to cry,” Singleton said in a statement. “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.”

Singleton spent five days in jail in lieu of $100,000 bail before a lawyer got her released, according to the lawsuit. By contrast, Crossley was released on the day of his arraignment on a $3,500 bond. He eventually pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and received no jail time.

The other plaintiffs in the new lawsuit include two who were jailed on material witness warrants and three who received “fake subpoenas.”

The lawsuit claims that the DA’s Office has sought material witness warrants at least 150 times over the past five years. More than 30 prosecutors have signed or approved such warrants, the suit says.

Louisiana law grants prosecutors wide latitude to arrest witnesses on court-approved warrants. The law also does not mandate that indigent witnesses must receive a lawyer, unlike indigent defendants. However, the lawsuit alleges that material witnesses are being denied their right to a first appearance before a judge within 72 hours, as required by law.

In one case, the victim of child sex trafficking was held in jail for 89 days before she saw a judge, the lawsuit alleges. She lost her housing and custody of her child, according to the suit.

Meanwhile, the executive director of Silence Is Violence, Tamara Jackson, claims that Cannizzaro threatened her with prosecution after she filed a formal complaint about him to the National District Attorneys Association last year. In it, Jackson claimed his office was providing inadequate services to victims.

Jackson said Cannizzaro called her after the complaint was filed and threatened to prosecute her for witness coercion if she encouraged victims not to speak with his office.

She said she hopes the lawsuit will force the district attorney to change his tactics.

“It’s truly an abuse of power,” Jackson said. “If we’re advocating for victims and witnesses and they are being abused and intimidated by the District Attorney’s Office, then that is also a problem.”

The ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps said the lawsuit against Cannizzaro is the first in what they hope will be a series of challenges to prosecutorial power across the United States.

Advocacy groups have grown increasingly convinced that they must change the practices of local district attorneys to make a dent in the country's high rate of incarceration. Their efforts have included a series of campaigns to elect reform-minded lawyers as district attorneys.

However, the lawsuit filed Tuesday — which could take years to come to a resolution — may face a higher bar in federal court than in the court of public opinion. All of the material witness warrants were approved by state judges. Also, prosecutors have broad legal immunity for the actions they take in the course of their jobs.

“That’s going to be one of the biggest issues that they’re going to have, as far as getting damages from any individual prosecutor,” said Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University. “They’re going to try to show a pattern or practice of unconstitutional behavior that would subject the District Attorney’s Office as an entity to liability.”

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432