NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans district attorney routinely seeks arrest warrants and high bails for witnesses and crime victims who refuse to speak with prosecutors, a practice that resulted in a domestic abuse victim being jailed for five days and a child sex-trafficking victim being jailed for 109 days, civil rights groups allege in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of six people and a victims’ advocacy group, Silence is Violence, against District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and nine of his assistants.
The suit also says Cannizzaro’s staff used phony subpoenas — issued without judicial approval — to coerce victims and witnesses to submit to questioning. Cannizzaro said earlier this year that the practice had been stopped.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Civil Rights Corps.
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“No individual who alleges that they were aggrieved by my office’s policies and practices has contacted me,” Cannizzaro said in a statement emailed Tuesday afternoon. He said he was confident he and his assistants would be vindicated.
“I look forward to litigating these issues in a venue where naked allegations must be supported by substantive proof,” he said.
Renata Singleton is the lead plaintiff in the case. The suit says she was jailed after she declined to pursue charges against a man who shattered her cell phone during a fight. The suit says she had ended her relationship with the man. 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.
The suit said she was later arrested on a material witness warrant — which allows arrest and detention of an uncooperative witness — and jailed on $100,000 bond. She spent five days behind bars before the bond was reduced and she was sent home with an ankle monitor, according to the suit. She was never called to testify. The case ended after her ex-boyfriend pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to probation.
“Ms. Singleton’s arrest as a material witness has been a persistent source of humiliation and shame,” the suit says. “Ms. Singleton’s mugshot can be found online.”
The suit says a sex-trafficking victim, identified only by her initials, was held for 109 days and lost her home and the custody of her child as a result of prosecutors’ having her held as a material witness.
The suit says prosecutors under Cannizzaro have a “policy, practice and custom” of using false allegations or omitting important information when they obtain material witness warrants. In Singleton’s case, for example, the suit alleges that a judge issued an arrest warrant after a prosecutor asserted that she had failed to appear in accordance with two subpoenas — subpoenas that were never approved by a court
Also, the suit says Cannizzaro twice threatened the director of the victim advocacy group Silence is Violence with prosecution for witness coercion or obstruction because of her complaints about the District Attorney’s Office practices.
Allegations that crime victims are jailed by Cannizzaro’s office were raised earlier this year by a local watchdog group, Court Watch NOLA. The group issued a report saying six crime victims were jailed at the behest of prosecutors, including a rape victim held for eight days.
When that report was issued in April, the District Attorney’s Office noted that the report described only one jailed sex abuse or domestic violence victim. Cannizzaro was surprised that the group “focused so much of its resources and attention on an issue that, according to their report, only affected a single person,” Assistant District Attorney Christopher Bowman wrote in an emailed statement in April.