NEW ORLEANS — The Southern Poverty Law Center on Thursday filed ethics complaints with the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board against two district attorneys’ offices for issuing so-called fake subpoenas.
According to the complaints, an investigation is needed to determine the scope of the practice and to hold the lawyers involved accountable for alleged violations of professional conduct rules, which forbid lawyers from engaging in deception.
“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.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro in May, after news reports said his office sometimes sent documents labeled as subpoenas without getting a judge’s approval. The SPLC said the documents threatened witnesses with fines and jail time to force them into answering prosecutors’ questions.
Cannizzaro has said his office no longer does that.
The SPLC filed a similar complaint against Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick and his office, saying that, unlike the documents issued by Cannizzaro’s office, the documents from Connick’s office did not threaten punishment for noncompliance but misleadingly informed recipients that they were ordered to appear at the district attorney’s office.
“Through this language, the document intimates that a judge has authorized this subpoena and that failure to comply could result in punishment. The witness is therefore intimidated and misled into believing that he is under a legal obligation to appear as commanded,” the complaint said.
Connick’s office has stopped the practice, replacing the documents with letters requesting witness cooperation.
Neither his office nor Cannizzaro’s office has revealed which assistant district attorneys used the false subpoenas.
Paul Purpura, a spokesman for Connick’s office, said Thursday that the office had no comment on the SPLC’s filing.
Cannizzaro’s office did not respond to an email request and phone call seeking comment.