The district attorney in New Orleans has turned to a federal appeals court in hopes of killing a lawsuit over his office’s use of phony subpoenas and alleged coercion of witnesses.
The suit against Leon Cannizzaro and members of his staff was filed in 2017 by civil rights groups on behalf of six people and a local victims’ advocacy organization. Last month, a federal judge largely rejected a request to dismiss the suit. The judge agreed that prosecutors had immunity from some of the claims. But U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo allowed much of the suit to continue, saying some of the claims “shock the conscience.”
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Civil Rights Corps after the online news outlet The Lens exposed prosecutors’ use of fake “subpoenas” that had not been approved by a judge. Cannizzaro said the practice ended in 2017.
A notice of appeal on behalf of Cannizzaro and members of his staff was filed Tuesday at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans.
Also challenged in the suit are aspects of the district attorney’s office’s use of “material witness” warrants that can lead to jailing of uncooperative witnesses. The suit accuses Cannizzaro’s office of abusing the material witness laws to coerce witnesses to take part in private out-of-court meetings with prosecutors “and to coerce testimony consistent with the prosecution’s theory of the case.”
Cannizzaro’s staff’s use of material witness warrants has been criticized by civil rights groups, an independent organization that monitors New Orleans courts and the City Council, which last month passed a resolution urging the district attorney to end issuance of such warrants for victims of sexual assault or domestic violence.
Answering his critics, Cannizzaro has said the use of the warrants is sometimes critical to building cases against dangerous criminals and the warrants are rarely used to arrest victims of domestic violence or sexual crimes.
His office’s 5th Circuit appeal does not yet include arguments in the case, but in earlier district court filings his attorneys say the prosecutor and his staff are legally immune from the civil claims arising from their work, that many of the allegations were filed too late and that the suit doesn’t “plausibly” show that the prosecutors violated the plaintiffs’ rights.