Qualified Immunity

Louisiana Prosecutors Say They Can't Be Sued Over the Fake Subpoenas They Used To Pressure Witnesses Into Testifying

In several cases, victims received higher bonds than criminal defendants and were forced to serve jail time.


Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro issued fake subpoenas to pressure victims and witnesses to testify. Now facing a lawsuit, the Louisiana prosecutor is arguing that the practice falls under the umbrella of absolute immunity—the doctrine that says prosecutors cannot face civil action for carrying out their official duties.

The good news is that there's a strong chance the courts won't buy it.

The Lens uncovered Cannizzaro's tactic in April 2017. He would send people notifications telling them to appear in court or face fines or jail time. The documents were neither authorized by a judge nor issued by a county clerk, the proper channels for subpoenas. Cannizzaro's office was producing them itself. Worse yet: Even though the subpoenas were unlawful, he really did jail people who didn't obey them.

In October 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Cannizzaro and some of his staffers on behalf of the people who received the subpoenas. According to the suit, Cannizzaro's office sought high bonds for those jailed for refusing to obey the orders, often higher than the bond set for the criminal defendants in the related cases. The victim in one domestic violence case was forced to spend five days in jail on a $100,000 bond; she appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. Her alleged abuser was treated more leniently: He paid a $3,500 secured bond, returned home until his court date, and appeared before the court in his own clothes.

A rape victim, similarly, spent 12 days in jail. A child sex trafficking victim spent 89 days in jail, including Christmas and New Year's Day.

This week, Cannizzaro's lawyers asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to throw out the suit, arguing that absolute immunity protected them from legal action. A ruling has not been issued yet, but the judges repeatedly expressed doubts about this argument, noting that the prosecutors operated outside of their realm of authority.

About 40 former prosecutors and attorney generals joined several civil liberties groups, such as the Cato Institute, in a 2019 friend of the court brief arguing there is "no justification for granting absolute immunity" for a fraudulent practice.

"When prosecutors fail to conduct themselves ethically in their interactions with victims and witnesses," the brief says, "it undermines confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole, makes victims less likely to report crime, and discourages witnesses from coming forth to provide evidence."