Having implicitly admitted that he was breaking the law, by making a somewhat halfhearted attempt to clean up his act, New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro says he expects to be “completely vindicated” in federal court.
This is not the first time Cannizzaro has said what he can't possibly believe. A few weeks ago, challenged by the City Council over the policies that have given rise to the lawsuit he now faces, Cannizzaro averred that “no one was incarcerated” because of them.
He would have to be the most disengaged public official in the state to be unaware that his assistants had been using bogus subpoenas to jail citizens not even suspected of a crime. As the lawsuit points out, Cannizzaro is a notorious micromanager. His say-so would have been required for all the dirty tricks described in the lawsuit.
Named as plaintiffs are six victims of those dirty tricks plus Silence is Violence, an organization that was established to fight violent crime but nowadays claims it has its hands full protecting innocent citizens against the DA. The ACLU is handling the suit which seeks monetary damages, probably in vain, given the comprehensive immunity that prosecutors enjoy for their official actions.
The plaintiffs also want the court to make Cannizzaro quit his “constitutional violations and violations of Louisiana law.” That sounds like a reasonable request — so reasonable, in fact, that it is superfluous. No court injunction is required to establish the supremacy of the law or the equality of everyone before it.
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Those who are paid to enforce the law might nevertheless reasonably be expected to observe it punctiliously. Cannizzaro will presumably argue that he does now that he has stopped sending out notices labeled “subpoena” without bothering to seek the requisite court approval.
Thus the suit may have no tangible effect beyond, perhaps, a court order to expunge the records of people jailed as material witnesses after failing to follow instructions contained in a make-believe subpoena. It is indeed outrageous that these people suffer the embarrassment and disadvantage of an arrest record — viewable these days online — when they have committed no crime.
Cannizzaro says he looks forward to “litigating these issues in a venue where naked allegations must be supported by substantive proof.” The lawsuit offers so much of it that vindication for Cannizzaro can be ruled out in advance.
He has, after all, admitted forcing witnesses to cooperate with his prosecutors with what purported to be subpoenas. Failure to follow instructions, recipients were warned could result in “fine or imprisonment.” In fact, citizens may refuse to be interviewed by prosecutors if they wish; these pieces of paper were ginned up in the DA's office and had no legal force.
Although Cannizzaro has dropped the word “subpoena,” the “notices to appear” he sends out instead are still worded to give the spurious impression that their cooperation is mandatory, according to the suit.
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State law does allow refractory witnesses to be arrested but only if their testimony is essential for a fair trial and cannot be secured by subpoena. Cannizzaro's assistants for years prevailed on judges to lock up witnesses without disclosing that the subpoenas they allegedly ignored were no such thing.
The suit cites witnesses who were more than happy to testify but were locked up for ignoring the unlawful orders of the DA's office in advance of the trial. The law says material witnesses may be kept in jail until they make bond, which has often been beyond their means, or they take the stand at trial.
They are supposed to get a court hearing within 72 hours but have often been denied their right in New Orleans, according to the lawsuit, which cites the case of a sex trafficking victim jailed for 109 days as a material witness. By the time she got out she had lost her housing. Forced to live on the street, she lost custody of her daughter.
Such are the heartbreaking consequences when arrogant and heartless prosecutors abuse their awesome powers. Cannizzaro should be seeking not vindication but forgiveness.
Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.