If you thought the New Orleans district attorney’s office hit rock bottom when its prosecutors started locking up rape victims, sending innocent men to death row or bringing perjury charges against witnesses who recant after they were pressured by police to testify to things that didn’t happen . . . think again.
The notice Tiffany Lacroix received in November had “SUBPOENA” printed at the top, next to a logo of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office. It ordered her to meet with a prosecutor to discuss the upcoming trial of Cardell Hayes, charged with murdering former Saints player Will Smith.
“A FINE AND IMPRISONMENT MAY BE IMPOSED FOR FAILURE TO OBEY THIS NOTICE,” it declared.
But it wasn’t authorized by a judge. It wasn’t issued by the Clerk of Court, which sends out subpoenas. And Lacroix wouldn’t have gone to jail if she had ignored it. In other words, it was fake.
The notice came from District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office. His prosecutors are using these fake subpoenas to pressure witnesses to talk to them — a tactic that defense lawyers and legal experts said is unethical, if not illegal.
Remarkably, the office isn’t denying the charge, it’s defending it.
The thing is, a district attorney’s office can compel a witness to testify under penalty of arrest. It just needs to get a judge to sign off first. That’s a check on prosecutors, so they don’t abuse the power. Cannizzaro’s office just skipped over the “checks and balances” part. Because it can.
In just the past few years, Cannizzaro and his subordinates have also been the subject of multiple misconduct complaints, including bullying defense attorneys by threatening them with criminal charges. One investigator for the public defender’s office was arrested after exposing misconduct by an assistant district attorney. The district attorney’s office has also been accused of judge-shopping.
UPDATE: After a lot of press attention, Cannizzaro’s office has acknowledged that it doesn’t have the power to issue these subpoenas, and has agreed to stop issuing them.