NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A 2017 lawsuit challenging former New Orleans prosecutors for hardball tactics, including the issuance of fake subpoenas and the jailing of crime victims who wouldn’t cooperate with investigators, was settled Tuesday in federal court.
The lawsuit centered on the practices of staff under former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who did not seek reelection last year after two six-year terms. Cannizzaro’s successor, Jason Williams, agreed to the appointment of a special monitor to ensure his office complies with terms of the settlement. Those include detailed policies written to ensure prosecutors don’t use “coercive or unlawful means to secure cooperation from crime victims or witnesses.”
Cannizzaro ended his staff’s use of phony subpoenas soon after the practice was exposed by an online news outlet, The Lens. He defended the jailing of witnesses, including victims, as a rarely used but sometimes necessary practice.
Civil rights and criminal justice advocates were harshly critical of the practices. Among the harshest critics was Williams, a defense attorney and City Council member. He won election to succeed Cannizzarro late last year while running as a reformer who vowed to end what he called a “win at all cost” mentality in the district attorney’s office.
The settlement calls for a $120,000 payout to three remaining plaintiffs. Earlier settlements totaling more than $70,000 were made with other plaintiffs in the years after the lawsuit was filed. The suit explicitly ends the use of phony subpoenas — orders for witnesses to talk to prosecutors that looked official but that had not been approved by a court.
In 2019, a federal judge said some of the prosecutors named in the suit were immune from some of the claims. But U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo allowed much of the lawsuit to continue, saying some of the claims “shock the conscience.”
Renata Singleton, the lead plaintiff, said she was jailed after she declined to pursue charges against a man who shattered her cellphone during a fight. The suit said she told a representative of Cannizzaro’s office she considered the situation resolved and did not want to risk having to take time off from work to pursue the case. She also was among three plaintiffs who said in the lawsuit that they received fraudulent subpoenas insisting they speak with prosecutors.
Singleton was one of three plaintiffs in Tuesday’s settlement. She had also reached a partial settlement in earlier proceedings. At least four others reached earlier settlements over the years, along with the anti-crime group “Silence is Violence,” which claimed its leader was threatened with prosecution for complaining about practices in the district attorney’s office.
Policies outlined in the settlement agreement state that Williams’ office won’t seek “material witness” warrants ordering a crime victim to provide information “unless exceptional circumstances apply.” And Williams agrees to appoint a supervising attorney who will have to approve any request to the court for a material witness warrant.