NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams thinks the bar association might launch a probe into a district attorney's office's practice of issuing “fake” subpoenas to potential witnesses in cases it is prosecuting.
An attorney by trade, Williams said that he fears what impression more experienced attorneys committing such unethical acts might leave on their younger colleagues.
The issue recently came to the forefront after it was revealed that prosecutors from Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office routinely sent out self-generated notices as a way of forcing witnesses threatened with fines or imprisonment to meet and speak with them.
Louisiana law requires that all legitimate subpoenas be authorized by a judge and issued by the Clerk of Court.
“This practice should stop immediately,” New Orleans law professor and attorney Dane S. Ciolino told the Louisiana Record. “In my view, it is inappropriate for the district attorney’s office to falsely declare that such documents are ‘subpoenas’ and to state that disregarding them can be punishable by fine or imprisonment. These statements are false statements of material fact or law.”
Representatives from Cannizzaro’s office have defended the practice as part of their commitment to dealing with a high volume of cases in which witnesses don’t always choose to cooperate.
Ciolino doesn’t think the end justifies the means, but he stopped short of calling for the disbarment of those found to have engaged in the practice.
“It warrants at most a public reprimand,” he said, adding that he’s convinced the revelation shouldn’t have any impact on convictions or cases that have already gone before the court.
A spokesperson from Cannizzaro’s office has since indicated prosecutors plan to discontinue the practice. Representatives said the use of the method predates his time in office.
A recent high-profile case in which one of the “subpoenas” was issued involved the then fast-approaching trial of Cardell Hayes, the man charged in the shooting death of former NFL player Will Smith.
Tiffany LeCroix received the notice ordering her to meet with prosecutors, but her attorney, Anthony Ibert, instantly moved to block the action after uncovering it had not been properly issued by the court clerk.
Ibert has since said he’s convinced the notices constitute forgery and are in violation of attorney ethics codes.
Cannizzaro’s office has also faced repeated accusations of over-aggressiveness, with prosecutors often seeking long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes.
Court Watch NOLA noted in several instances in which prosecutors have sought to obtain arrest warrants for victims of crimes because they did not cooperate with prosecutions.
According to the legal watchdog group, in 2016 a female rape victim was jailed on a material witness warrant at the same facility where the alleged rapist was being held, and an attempted murder victim was locked up after he after insisted he was too afraid to appear in court.