NEW ORLEANS — Now that top prosecutors at two parishes known to have been issuing “fake subpoenas” have vowed to end the practice, Jason Williams, a New Orleans city councilman, has said it’s time to take a real assessment of all the damage.
“There needs to be investigation of how long this has been going on and in what cases it was used in,” Williams told the Louisiana Record. “We need to be sure this did not result in any kind of miscarriage of justice. If the [district attorney] wants to truly repair relationships and restore transparency, that’s what needs to happen.”
Prosecutors from both the Jefferson Parish and Orleans Parish district attorney offices have admitted to sending out the self-generated notices as a way of coercing witnesses into meeting and speaking with them about cases assigned to their jurisdictions.
Louisiana law requires that all legitimate subpoenas be authorized by a judge and issued by the court clerk.
In addition to circumventing the law, legal experts and defense attorneys across the country have blasted the “fake subpoena” practice as unethical and in violation of attorney code.
“The chief says he can’t close cases because people don’t want to participate with the criminal justice system,” Williams said. "This is why. This is corrosive to the public trust and patently wrong to misrepresent something as of the court when it is not.”
In the case of the “subpoenas” sent out by the Orleans Parish office, recipients were deceptively threatened with “a fine and imprisonment” for failure to obey.
While representatives from both parishes have since indicated they plan to discontinue the practice, a spokesperson from the Orleans Parish office initially defended its actions as part of its commitment to dealing with “an extraordinary number of cases” in which witnesses don’t always choose to cooperate.
Williams, a defense attorney by trade, says that is not a valid explanation and hints at its blatant hypocrisy.
“If this was a public defender creating false documents, this D.A. office would be prosecuting them,” Williams said. “Creating their own subpoenas is the same as a police officer signing their own search warrants to go into someone’s home.”
The Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office has also faced repeated accusations of over-aggressiveness and allegations of prosecutors seeking lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent crimes.
Court Watch NOLA also highlighted several recent instances of angered prosecutors seeking to obtain arrest warrants for victims of crimes because they did not cooperate with them.
According to the legal watchdog group, a female rape victim was jailed last year on a material witness warrant at the same facility where her 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.
"Issuing bonds for victims of crime is just a way of re-victimizing them all over again,” Williams said. “That office has shown a propensity for abusing people.”
Editor's note: The original version of this story included an error. It incorrectly identified New Orleans City Councilmember Jason Williams. It has been corrected.