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Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s Controversial Subpoenas Prompt Lawsuit and Demand for Public Disclosure

NEW ORLEANS – A lawsuit was filed Friday against Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro in light of his office’s controversial practice of gathering evidence using subpoenas that do not have the required advance approval of a court.

Filed by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, the suit asks the Orleans Parish Civil District Court to order Cannizzaro to comply with a 2015 public records request for copies of district attorney subpoenas from 2013 to the present.

When the Center first requested records of subpoenas two years ago, the Office of the District Attorney claimed it could not determine where they were located and that finding them would be unduly burdensome. Cannizzaro’s office directed MacArthur to the Clerk of the Court of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court as the “proper custodian of the records,” but the Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell said finding them would require a review of each of the 15,000 cases on file, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit points out that The Lens, an online media outlet, recently disclosed that Cannizzaro’s office had used subpoenas not signed by any judge to force individuals to appear for questioning. The New Orleans Advocate reported Cannizzaro’s staff admitted there was no formal system to keep records of subpoenas on file.

“The District Attorney’s staff misled us about where to find subpoenas, at best” said Katie Schwartzmann, Co-Director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s office in New Orleans. “Because their subpoenas often weren’t reviewed by any judges, the court would not have a record of those. And because Cannizzaro’s staff reportedly sometimes did not even put copies of subpoenas in office case files, they were not preserved as public records and no one can know what ones are missing.

“District Attorney Cannizzaro has an obligation to maintain and provide public records,” Schwartzmann said. “We asked for these subpoenas two years ago and no one could find them. Now we learn that there has been a serious abuse of authority related to exactly the subpoenas we sought, and that the DA is in fact the only person that would have legal possession of them. We are asking the court to direct him to produce all subpoenas.”

In addition to the requested order to produce public documents, the lawsuit questions the constitutionality of the Louisiana statute governing how district attorneys may obtain subpoenas for documents and testimony by individuals. Article 66 of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure states that the court may order issuance of subpoenas when the attorney general or district attorney set forth “reasonable grounds.”

Because the statute authorizes seizure of personal property with only a showing of “reasonable grounds” rather than probable cause, it violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, according to the lawsuit. 

"We are concerned about the constitutionality of the District Attorney subpoena process generally. We want to know how often they are subpoenaing documents pursuant to their authority. We were trying to investigate that but we were told by the District Attorney that they would not produce any such records. Two years later we learn that the abuse of authority was worse than we feared. "Individual district attorneys were issuing subpoenas with no court approval whatsoever" Schwartzmann said. "We are asking a court to order the office of the District Attorney to comply with our original request, as they have demonstrated that they will not voluntarily comply with our request."  

The lawsuit points out that Cannizzaro is subject to financial sanctions and jail time. 

A copy of the court filings are available here:

Petition for Writ of Mandamus

Exhibits to Petition for Writ of Mandamus

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