Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a bar complaint with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel against Leon Cannizzaro, the District Attorney for New Orleans Parish, Louisiana.
The gist of the allegations involve a series of fake subpoenas Cannizzaro’s office was using to coerce people not accused of a crime to come to the DA’s office and submit to interviews, as detailed by The Lens. The subpoenas threatened “fines or imprisonment,” but were not legal documents; they just looked kind of legal to the normal person. Of course, this was the point — to frighten people into compliance.
In the normal course of business, prosecutors can subpoena witnesses, but they must do so through court order. Prosecutors are powerful, but they cannot simply unilaterally decide that someone must testify. They at least need to talk to a judge first. Failure to do so violates local and state law as well as rules of professional conduct.
Of course, Cannizzaro and his staff are prosecutors, so they should know better.
Cannizzaro won’t back down, and, like a bulldog, he pursues his narrow-minded ideal of justice vigorously. But, people are catching onto his tactics. Now, with the revelations of the fake subpoenas, members of the New Orleans City Council are calling for an end to the practice as well as an investigation. “We need to be sure this did not result in any kind of miscarriage of justice,” one councilman told a reporter.
Cannizzaro’s office went through a number of contortions to explain itself. First, Cannizzaro argued that there was nothing wrong with the practice. Then, once it was clear the issue would not go away, his office announced it would stop using the fake subpoenas. But, Cannizzaro has continued to claim that his office cannot (or will not) figure out how often they were used. The ACLU sued and won, so the DA’s office is now compelled to look for this information, at least in some cases. Now this complaint.
But will it stop? New Orleans has a troubled history with wrongful convictions, extremely punitive prison terms, and plain dishonesty. But, thus far, New Orleans prosecutors have not been deterred by lawsuits, wrongful convictions, U.S. Supreme Court scolding, or bar complaints. What will it take?