The Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office has issued at least 249 so-called “DA subpoenas” in recent years, newly released documents show, suggesting how frequently prosecutors used the controversial tactic in an effort to force reluctant witnesses to testify.
The office also has turned over 50 court filings seeking to arrest crime victims and witnesses for allegedly failing to cooperate. Almost all of those requests were granted; 16 people were arrested.
As The Lens first reported last year, prosecutors sent what they called “DA subpoenas” to pressure reluctant witnesses to appear for private interviews with prosecutors. Those documents were marked “SUBPOENA” and threatened the recipients with jail and fines for failing to obey, but they were not authorized by a judge or issued by a court clerk, as required by law for actual subpoenas.
Some legal experts and defense attorneys say the use of the documents was unethical, if not illegal.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro ended the practice the same day The Lens first reported on it. The office was later sued in federal court by the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps over the controversial tactic.
District attorneys in Jefferson Parish and on the north shore used similar notices; they too immediately halted the practice after it was publicly revealed.
The 249 “DA subpoenas” were issued in New Orleans cases that were closed between 2014 and 2016. Released in response to a request from the City Council, they offer the first indication of how often Orleans Parish prosecutors used the bogus documents.
The DA’s Office had said they were rarely used and that it would be practically impossible to find them all by searching through its case files. No list of the subpoenas was kept.
In a letter sent to City Council President Jason Williams last week, Cannizzaro suggested 70 percent of the notices his office found were innocuous. Some simply reminded cooperating witnesses to show up in court, he said. Others went to police officers.
And some, Cannizzaro wrote, were “proof of attendance.” Assistant District Attorney David Pipes said in an October court hearing that prosecutors sometimes gave people the DA subpoenas so they could be excused from work or school.
“Not one of these ‘DA subpoena’ documents by themselves resulted in anyone’s arrest or detention,” Cannizzaro wrote.
Several subpoenas previously discovered by The Lens are not included in the newly disclosed records, possibly because those cases were not resolved before the end of 2016.
A spokesman for Cannizzaro said he was not immediately able to respond to questions about the records that were produced.
For the years 2014 to 2016, the DA’s Office found 50 instances in which prosecutors sought arrest warrants for witnesses or victims who allegedly refused to cooperate. Those are known as material witness warrants.
Forty-eight of those applications were granted, and 16 resulted in an arrest, Cannizzaro wrote.
The records partly satisfy a judgment in a public records lawsuit filed last year by The Lens after the DA’s Office denied a request for records issued in 2016 and 2017. Cannizzaro has appealed the ruling.
In a first pass last year, the DA’s Office searched cases that prosecutors decided not to pursue. That search turned up only one fake subpoena.
The 249 documents were not unearthed because the DA’s Office was trying to satisfy the court ruling. Instead, the office was responding to a demand from the City Council to say how often it used “DA subpoenas” and material witness warrants.
In November, Cannizzaro said answering those questions would require a manual review of tens of thousands of case files. He estimated that would take six months.
Late last month, Williams fired off a letter to Cannizzaro noting that nearly seven months had passed and the request hadn’t been fulfilled.
The DA’s Office paid the company that stores its old files $118,656.51 to pull the files, Cannizzaro wrote in his letter. He wrote that more than 100 employees spent more than 4,000 hours on the task.