On Thursday, the New Orleans City Council approved by a vote of 7-0 a resolution calling for the District Attorney’s office to end the practice of jailing domestic violence and sexual assault victims to force them to testify against their abusers.
The independent watchdog group, Court Watch NOLA first reported the practice in 2017. Since then, the group has been fighting to have the practice abolished, facing heavy resistance from the District Attorney’s Office.
In a statement on Wednesday, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office said that they only seek the warrants when a witness’ testimony is viewed as critical to keeping offenders in jail.
Councilmember Kristin Palmer said, “I believe holistically that this is a horrific abuse of the DA’s power, to arrest innocent victims just for the sake of winning the case. Do we really need to have that win in the column at the victim’s expense?”
According to City Council President Jason Williams, “(Cannizzaro) admitted that his policies in certain instances have led to the victims spending more days in jail than the actual perpetrator. There is no justice in that.”
While Court Watch NOLA’s most recent report on the practice shows that the method is becoming less common, City Council members and victim’s advocates argue that even one victim jailed is too many.
Issuing warrants to force testimony isn’t the only tactic that Cannizzaro’s office uses to intimidate victims. In 2017, The Lens discovered that the District Attorney’s office had been issuing fake subpoenas to victims and witnesses ordering them to appear for interviews with prosecutors. Those subpoenas threatened jail time should the victim fail to comply.
While it is legal for prosecutors to force witnesses to give private interviews, it requires a special subpoena approved by a judge. The fake documents issued by the DA’s office did not receive judicial approval. According to The Lens, the practice has been common at the DA’s office for decades.
In addition, a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Civil Rights Corps claims that arrest warrants were issued for at least ten victims or witnesses who failed to comply with fake subpoenas, and at least six served jail time.
As for the practice of issuing warrants for victims of crimes, several members of the Council expressed their willingness to take the fight all the way to the state legislature if necessary. It’s likely that effort would be successful, especially as the federal Violence Against Women Act requires states to abolish the practice to continue receiving federal funding for domestic abuse programs and victim’s shelters.
In a response to this resolution, Cannizzaro stated that this is “an extremely important tool” that is “sparingly used.” He also said that the practice may be necessary in order to ensure the defendant cannot argue that they didn’t receive a fair trial.
Jenn Bentley is a writer and editor originally from Cadiz, Kentucky. Her writing has been featured in publications such as The Examiner, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, and others. When she’s not writing or editing, Jenn spends her time raising money for Extra Life and advocating for autism awareness.