Suit Against D.A. Who Used Fake Subpoenas To Put Victims In Jail Kicks Off Civil Rights Battle

Prosecutors are generally immune from accountability. A new joint initiative from Civil Rights Corps and the ACLU seeks to change that.

Renata Singleton is a plain­tiff in a law­suit against the dis­trict attor­ney in New Orleans.

WASHINGTON ― Renata Singleton is a black woman who spent five days in a New Orleans jail because she couldn’t afford her bail. Away from her three chil­dren, she lost eight pounds before her moth­er was final­ly able to pur­chase her release.

When Singleton got home, she had an 8 p.m. cur­few and start­ed wear­ing bell-bot­tom jeans to hide the elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor on her ankle from her kids. Despite hav­ing a master’s degree in busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion, she’s wor­ried she’ll have trou­ble find­ing a new job: Her mug shot and a record of her arrest are still float­ing around online.

None of those facts make Singleton’s sto­ry extra­or­di­nar­i­ly note­wor­thy: Legally inno­cent defen­dants unable pur­chase their free­dom ahead of tri­al are reg­u­lar­ly locked up. Here’s what does: Singleton wasn’t accused of a crime. She was the vic­tim of one.

About three years ago, in November 2014, Singleton got into an argu­ment with her boyfriend. He shat­tered her phone. Her daugh­ter called the police. The boyfriend was arrest­ed.

Singleton’s ex-boyfriend was able to pay a $3,500 secured bond at his arraign­ment the next day, and he was released. He lat­er plead­ed guilty to two mis­de­meanors and was sen­tenced to pro­ba­tion with­out jail time.

Singleton, the vic­tim in the case, didn’t have such an easy go of it. When a vic­tim-wit­ness advo­cate for the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office reached out to her, Singleton said she wasn’t inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing charges. She had a job that paid by the hour, and she didn’t want to miss out on work or time with her kids. She’d bro­ken up with the man. She was ready to move on.

Prosecutors didn’t let her let it go. According to a law­suit filed Tuesday against Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro and oth­ers in his office, inves­ti­ga­tors draft­ed up “sub­poe­nas” requir­ing Singleton to appear for a meet­ing at the dis­trict attorney’s office in April 2015, when the case against her ex-boyfriend was still pend­ing.

Those doc­u­ments were not actu­al­ly sub­poe­nas ― but the dis­trict attorney’s office mis­lead­ing­ly labeled them as such to com­pel Singleton to show up to a meet­ing. Singleton didn’t know that at the time, but she didn’t go to the meet­ing because a friend in law enforce­ment told her that she hadn’t been valid­ly served.

The day Singleton missed the meet­ing, an assis­tant dis­trict attor­ney applied for a mate­r­i­al wit­ness war­rant, ask­ing the court to jail Singleton. Believing the fake sub­poe­nas were actu­al sub­poe­nas, a judge issued the arrest war­rant.

Singleton even­tu­al­ly met with pros­e­cu­tors, but told them she wouldn’t talk to them with­out a lawyer present. Rather than grant­i­ng her access to a lawyer, pros­e­cu­tors had Singleton led out of their office in hand­cuffs, and she was arrest­ed on the war­rant.

It was the first time Singleton had ever been arrest­ed. She was tak­en to jail and forced into an orange jump­suit. Her bail was $100,000 ― more than 28 times the bail amount set for her alleged abuser. She spent five days in jail before she went before a judge, who reduced her bail to an amount her moth­er could afford.

Singleton is now the main named plain­tiff in a law­suit against Cannizzaro and his office that alleges that his pros­e­cu­tors “rou­tine­ly issue their own fab­ri­cat­ed sub­poe­nas direct­ly from the District Attorney’s Office ― with­out any judi­cial approval or over­sight ― in order to coerce vic­tims and wit­ness­es into sub­mit­ting to inter­ro­ga­tions by pros­e­cu­tors out­side of court.”

The suit, filed by Civil Rights Corps, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana, opens a new front in the legal bat­tle to change the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem ― by chal­leng­ing the actions of pros­e­cu­tors through civ­il rights lit­i­ga­tion.

Prosecutors are one of the biggest forces behind our society’s addic­tion to sense­less mass human caging,” says Alec Karakatsanis, the Civil Rights Corps’ founder. “And for years, they have oper­at­ed with vir­tu­al­ly no trans­paren­cy or account­abil­i­ty. Our hope is that cas­es like this one help tell peo­ple the sto­ry about what pros­e­cu­tors have been doing in our legal sys­tem, away from view, and about why they have been doing it.”

Anna Arceneaux, an ACLU senior staff attor­ney on the case, said she hoped this law­suit and oth­ers like it would help “change the land­scape in hold­ing pros­e­cu­tors account­able, because so much of our cri­sis of over-incar­cer­a­tion in this coun­try turns on the deci­sion-mak­ing of pros­e­cu­tors who are so used to not being held account­able and hav­ing very lit­tle over­sight of their deci­sions.”

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, pic­tured here on April 6, 2015, now faces a law­suit from the ACLU and Civil Rights Corps.

Prosecutors are noto­ri­ous­ly pro­tect­ed from being held account­able for mis­con­duct. The high bar for suing pros­e­cu­tors for the actions they take in the course of their jobs amounts to near immu­ni­ty.

But there is one rarely used pro­vi­sion of the law: chal­leng­ing pat­terns and prac­tices of uncon­sti­tu­tion­al con­duct. That’s what’s hap­pen­ing in the New Orleans case ― the plain­tiffs are alleg­ing that issu­ing fake sub­poe­nas was the office’s adopt­ed for­mal pol­i­cy, not just the action of one rogue pros­e­cu­tor.

Cannizzaro had chal­lenged mem­bers of the New Orleans City Council last month to show him one per­son who was ever arrest­ed on one of the D.A. notices. It evi­dent­ly wasn’t too hard: Civil rights inves­ti­ga­tors have already found at least 10 cas­es in the past three years in which pros­e­cu­tors applied for arrest war­rants by rely­ing on the asser­tion that a wit­ness didn’t obey one of the office’s fraud­u­lent sub­poe­nas.

The law­suit alleges that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office engages in an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al pol­i­cy of using “extra­ju­di­cial and unlaw­ful means to coerce, arrest, and imprison crime vic­tims and wit­ness­es.” The law­suit said that vic­tims and wit­ness­es “rou­tine­ly wait weeks or even months in jail” before they appear before a judge.

According to the suit, a rape vic­tim spent 12 days in jail before mak­ing a first court appear­ance, while a child sex traf­fick­ing vic­tim spent 89 days behind bars before she was able to chal­lenge her deten­tion in court.

Defendants’ poli­cies are designed to cre­ate a cul­ture of fear and intim­i­da­tion that chills crime vic­tims and wit­ness­es from assert­ing their con­sti­tu­tion­al rights,” the law­suit says. “As a result of these poli­cies, crime vic­tims and wit­ness­es in Orleans Parish know that if they exer­cise their right not to speak with an inves­ti­gat­ing pros­e­cu­tor, they will face harass­ment, threats, arrest, and jail.”

Prosecutors can typ­i­cal­ly request sub­poe­nas through a for­mal process that requires wit­ness­es or vic­tims to appear at a court hear­ing or before a grand jury. They’re not allowed to use a sub­poe­na to demand that a wit­ness show up to a pri­vate meet­ing.

So pros­e­cu­tors in New Orleans forged and doc­tored the doc­u­ments, accord­ing to the law­suit. In one case, pros­e­cu­tors gave a doc­tored sub­poe­na to a 60-year-old home­less bat­tery vic­tim. The man was required to appear in court on March 6, 2017, but pros­e­cu­tors altered the doc­u­ment to say he’d instead have to show up to the dis­trict attorney’s office on March 3. The forgery was appar­ent because the indi­vid­ual who altered it failed to change the appear­ance date in some cas­es, and for­got to remove some ref­er­ences to the court, the law­suit said.

The Lens, a New Orleans news orga­ni­za­tion, first report­ed on the fake sub­poe­nas in April. Shortly after­ward, Cannizzaro announced he would bring an end to what he admit­ted was an “improp­er” office pol­i­cy.

It was improp­er for us, it was incor­rect for us to label those notices as a sub­poe­na,” Cannizzzaro told a local news sta­tion. “That was incor­rect. It was improp­er and I take respon­si­bil­i­ty for that.”

Instead, the office has begun send­ing out “notices” that do not include the word “sub­poe­na.” Still, the law­suit alleges, the doc­u­ments “cre­ate the false impres­sion that the wit­ness is ‘required’ by law to meet pri­vate­ly with pros­e­cu­tors.”

The law­suit also alleges that Cannizzaro threat­ened Tamara Jackson, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the New Orleans vic­tim rights orga­ni­za­tion Silence Is Violence, anoth­er plain­tiff in the suit. According to the suit, after Jackson filed a com­plaint to the National District Attorneys Association about what she saw as the local dis­trict attor­ney office’s inad­e­quate pro­tec­tions for crime vic­tims, Cannizzaro “called Ms. Jackson and told her to be care­ful: if it appeared that she was encour­ag­ing vic­tims not to com­mu­ni­cate with his office, he could pros­e­cute her for wit­ness coer­cion.”

Jackson told HuffPost that the dis­trict attorney’s office’s actions have made her organization’s work more dif­fi­cult. She said she felt retal­i­at­ed against for pub­licly crit­i­ciz­ing the office for not offer­ing sup­port­ing ser­vices. “What they tell peo­ple is that they will like­ly have this wit­ness pro­tec­tion when we don’t have a wit­ness pro­tec­tion pro­gram here in Orleans Parish, and they’re not being truth­ful. They give folks decep­tive infor­ma­tion to encour­age them to share,” Jackson said. “I don’t trust them at all, and I do share the sen­ti­ments of our clients because I know what they’re capa­ble of.”

Tamara Jackson of the New Orleans orga­ni­za­tion Silence Is Violence.

Both Civil Rights Corps and the ACLU are plac­ing a new focus on pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al account­abil­i­ty. Civil Rights Corps, which prides itself on an “inno­v­a­tive and aggres­sive” approach to civ­il rights law, has brought sev­er­al notable chal­lenges to bail sys­tems across the United States, includ­ing a note­wor­thy case cur­rent­ly pend­ing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that bail sup­port­ers and oppo­nents are watch­ing close­ly.

Civil Rights Corps has received fund­ing from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pedi­a­tri­cian Priscilla Chan. As part of its new project on pros­e­cu­tors, the orga­ni­za­tion is plan­ning to build a pub­licly acces­si­ble, cen­tral­ized data­base of instances of pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al mis­con­duct. It will also pur­sue pat­tern and prac­tice cas­es ― when an office is accused of using uncon­sti­tu­tion­al meth­ods on a wide­spread basis ― and state bar com­plaints. A job descrip­tion for the project states that there are “vast swaths of large­ly unex­plored areas” of the law in regard to pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al mis­con­duct.

The ACLU also wants to draw atten­tion to the role of pros­e­cu­tors, both through lit­i­ga­tion and through edu­ca­tion­al efforts. Arceneaux said the ACLU wants to chal­lenge the con­tours of pros­e­cu­to­r­i­al immu­ni­ty and take cas­es that oth­ers aren’t always will­ing to take.

The dis­trict attor­neys hold a lot of pow­er, and it’s not an easy law­suit to bring for peo­ple in the local com­mu­ni­ty,” Arceneaux said. “Prosecutors have enor­mous pow­er, and they rou­tine­ly oper­ate with­out over­sight.”

This sto­ry has been updat­ed with a quote from Tamara Jackson.

Read the full law­suit below.