$70,000 in settlements in lawsuits over prosecutors’ tactics

January 8, 2021 GMT

The district attorney’s office in New Orleans has so far paid out $70,000 to settle with plaintiffs in a 2017 lawsuit over hardball prosecutorial tactics, including the threat of jail time for crime victims who don’t cooperate with prosecutors.

Settlements have been made with six individuals and one anti-crime organization, according to documents provided Friday to The Associated Press in response to a public records request to the district attorney’s office.

The lawsuit filed by civil liberties advocates said District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s staff used phony “subpoenas” that were never approved by a court and improperly used threats of jail to coerce reluctant crime victims to provide information.

Cannizzaro said the use of the fake subpoenas was halted after they were exposed by a New Orleans news outlet, The Lens. He has said the use of “material witness” warrants to jail uncooperative victims was rare in domestic violence or sexual assault cases, but sometimes necessary to prosecute dangerous criminals.

In 2019, a federal judge said some of the prosecutors named in the suit were immune from some of the claims. But U.S. District Judge Jane Triche Milazzo allowed much of the suit to continue, saying some of the claims “shock the conscience.”

Renata Singleton, the lead plaintiff, said she was jailed after she declined to pursue charges against a man who shattered her cellphone during a fight. The suit says she had ended her relationship with the man. She told a representative of Cannizzaro’s office she considered the situation resolved and did not want to risk having to take time off from work to pursue the case. She was also among three plaintiffs who said in the lawsuit that they received fraudulent subpoenas insisting that they speak with prosecutors.

Singleton has reached a partial settlement for $15,000 but still has some claims pending, according to the documents released Friday. Four other individuals have received $10,000 settlements and the anti-crime group Silence is Violence has settled for $15,000. The group claimed its leader was threatened with prosecution for complaining about prosecutors’ practices.

Claims involving Singleton and two others are pending against the District Attorney’s Office and multiple individual prosecutors as Cannizzaro completes two six-year terms as district attorney. He did not seek reelection this year. City Council member Jason Williams was elected to the post and will be sworn in Monday morning.