SPLC Files Ethics Complaint Against Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office for Issuing Fake Subpoenas

The Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board should investigate the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office for issuing fake subpoenas that threatened witnesses with fines and jail time to coerce them into answering prosecutors’ questions – actions that violate rules of professional conduct, according to a complaint the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed with the board today.

An investigation is needed to determine the scope of the practice and to hold the lawyers involved accountable for violations of the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct, which forbid lawyers from engaging in deception, according to the complaint. The filing notes that District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has admitted that his office had engaged in the practice since 2009, but has refused to divulge which assistant district attorneys were also involved.

If the board finds that violations occurred, it could recommend probation, admonition or the filing of formal charges against Cannizzaro or the attorneys under his leadership who used the fake subpoenas.

“District attorneys have almost unchecked discretion in our criminal justice system,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director. “As Louisianans work to reform the state’s criminal justice system and shed the title of incarceration capital of the world, district attorneys must be held accountable when they abuse the public’s trust.

“These bogus subpoenas violated people’s legal rights through manipulation and intimidation. An investigation is needed to restore the public’s confidence, and prevent other prosecutors from engaging in such misconduct.”

A subpoena is a court’s written order compelling a person to appear before the court or face a penalty. A subpoena cannot be issued by a district attorney.

The false subpoenas warned that a person may face a fine or imprisonment for failure to appear before prosecutors for questioning. The office even sought the arrest of at least one person who failed to respond to a false subpoena.

Cannizzaro’s office initially defended the documents, but later announced it would stop issuing them. Cannizzaro also attempted to deflect blame by explaining that the practice has been in use by the office for decades – well before his tenure. This admission, according to the complaint, only underscores the need for an investigation because it heightens concerns about the depth and breadth of this practice.

The district attorney’s other practices have also drawn attention and made headlines. Earlier this year, Cannizzaro jailed crime victims – including victims of rape – who did not want to testify in court. Last year, the SPLC report More Harm Than Good documented how Cannizzaro’s office prosecutes children as adults in unprecedented numbers.

The SPLC filed a similar complaint today against Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick for issuing documents labeled as subpoenas. Unlike the documents issued by Cannizzaro’s office, they did not threaten punishment for noncompliance, but did “order” witnesses to come to the DA’s office. Connick’s office has stopped the practice, replacing the documents with letters requesting witness cooperation. His office has not revealed which assistant district attorneys used the fake subpoenas.