State Capitol file

Advocate staff photo of the Louisiana State Capitol

State senators unanimously voted to put strict limits on prosecutors’ ability to jail victims of sexual assault or domestic violence who are reluctant or unwilling to testify against their attackers.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 146, is intended to curb the use of so-called material witness warrants to arrest and jail survivors in a bid to ensure their appearance on the witness stand.

State Sen. JP Morrell, the measure’s author, called it “an abhorrent practice” that “re-traumatizes” victims of rape or abuse.

Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat, had initially proposed a blanket ban on arresting and jailing sexual assault or domestic violence victims under a material witness warrant. But he revised to allow the practice if a judge deems it “absolutely necessary” and “after all other remedies have been exhausted in order to prevent further victimization and trauma to the victims.”

Under the revised legislation, a district attorney would have to argue a victim’s testimony is essential to the prosecution and detail previous efforts made to get a victim’s voluntary cooperation. Judges would also be required to consider bail, an ankle monitor or other alternatives before jailing a victim.

The revisions came after opposition from the state’s influential district attorneys, who defended the practice as necessary in some rare cases and argued against a total ban.

Arrests of victims in sexual assault or domestic violence cases would only happen under a “very limited” set of circumstances, Morrell said, and require a “much lengthier process” to obtain a judge’s approval.

Morgan Lamandre, the legal director of Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR), a Louisiana nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual trauma, negotiated the revisions the bill.

Lamandre said her group opposes jailing victims on material witness warrants but, given the resistance from the state’s prosecutors, a compromise was preferable to “the bill dying and there be no protections for survivors.”

The practice of jailing victims has provoked particularly intense controversy, especially in New Orleans, where District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s use of material witness warrants to coerce testimony from crime victims has been drawn condemnation from victims groups and the New Orleans City Council.

A report two years ago from Court Watch NOLA, a watchdog and advocacy group, found Cannizzaro’s office jailed at least two victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence in 2016 in an effort to force them to testify, including a woman who’d accused a man of rape and was jailed for a week.

Morrell cited another New Orleans case on the Senate floor where a woman who’d been abused by her spouse was jailed after refusing to testify in court out of fear for her life. The woman, Morrell said, ended up spending more time in jail than her abuser.

Cannizzaro has defended the practice and blasted his critics, declaring in February that banning the practice would “embolden sex offenders and domestic abusers to intimidate, threaten and harass their victims into avoiding courtroom testimony.”

Plaquemines District Attorney Charles Ballay told senators while testifying against the bill at a Senate committee hearing last month that the original proposal was “unanimously opposed” by the state’s prosecutors.

Ballay, the current president of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, argued prosecutors should have the ability to have survivors of rape and domestic violence arrested to compel their testimony in some circumstances.

Courts have used material witness warrants to jail victims of other types of crimes, such as shootings, and reluctant eyewitness in an effort to ensure their appearance in court. But its use in cases of rape, sexual abuse and domestic assaults has caused particular outrage.

New Orleans Councilwoman Helena Moreno, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, testified in favor of Morrell’s bill last month, arguing the best way to entice a victim to testify is by offering necessary services, not by threatening to toss her in jail, a practice she called “cruel.”

The New Orleans City Council in February called the practice “barbaric” while unanimously endorsing its prohibition.

“It’s not the perfect outcome but it’s much better than where we are today,” Moreno said the compromise legislation that would still allow victims to be jailed in rare cases.

Advocate staff writer Sam Karlin contributed to this report.


Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.