Unconstitutional Intimidation by Orleans Parish District Attorney Ends In Historic Settlement

Former Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro

By Jake Wylie

NEW ORLEANS, LA – Years of illegal coercion ended this week, the American Civil Liberties Union reported, with a landmark settlement between plaintiffs and the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office (OPDA).

The settlement ends Singleton et al. v. Cannizzaro, and is being recognized as a significant step for holding prosecutors accountable to the communities they serve and are supposed to protect.

The plaintiffs – including the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Louisiana, Civil Rights Corps, Venable LLP and non-profit SilenceIsViolence – sued District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and his office in 2017 for their blatant violations of Louisiana law.

Tuesday’s settlement, reached with Jason Williams, Orleans Parish’s new DA, will provide financial compensation to the remaining three plaintiffs who suffered great physical and emotional hardships because of the OPDA’s illegal actions.

“This settlement recognizes the harm that results when prosecutors operate with a ‘win at all costs’ mentality,” said Civil Rights Corps senior attorney Tara Mikkilineni. “[T]he DA has committed to reforms including unprecedented oversight of the office.”

Plaintiffs who settled earlier, including SilenceIsViolence, a non-profit centered on providing relief to victims of violent crime in New Orleans, previously received financial compensation from the OPDA.

“This agreement is a win for the people of Orleans Parish, who deserve an end to this unlawful behavior,” said Nora Ahmed, the Legal Director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

The ACLU noted that under the leadership of former DA Leon Cannizzaro, fake subpoenas featuring the official OPDA seal were used to arrest victims and witnesses and pressure them to testify before a jury.

The OPDA’s office also sent threats of fines and jail time to victims and witnesses without permission from courts, and when those threatened didn’t do as instructed, they were thrown in jail; further abuse came by not providing them with timely access to a judge and attorney as required under the law, said the plaintiffs.

Cannizzaro and his prosecutors sent people not accused of any crime to jail for days to months, according to the legal pleadings, which said these victims were separated from their families and in many cases endured threats of, or actual, loss of employment or housing by the OPDA.

“Prosecutors are not above the law,” said Ahmed. “Using bogus subpoenas to intimidate and jail witnesses and victims is an egregious abuse of power, and the ACLU of Louisiana is committed to holding the DA’s office accountable for violating the rights of the people they’re sworn to serve.”

Ahmed stated that she hopes the settlement will send a warning to prosecutors that “this conduct is unacceptable and will be challenged if it comes to the attention of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab initiative.”

Katie Schwartzman, a Tulane Law professor of Practice, director of the First Amendment Clinic, and a New Orleander herself, will be an independent overseer to ensure the OPDA fulfills the settlement’s requirements.

“We look forward to working with [Schwartzman],” said Molly Kovel, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, “to ensure that the reforms we are instituting will meaningfully increase the accountability and integrity of the district attorney’s office.”

About The Author

Jake is a senior majoring in English and psychology at UC Berkeley. He is a born-and-raised San Diegan.

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