NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - "These types of coercive practices are being used on private citizens that aren't charged with any crime," New Orleans City Councilman Jason Williams said.
The Orleans district attorney was criticized during a Criminal Justice Committee meeting after The Lens published a story about a document the DA's office sent to potential witnesses in criminal cases. The document is titled "Subpoena" and says "A fine and imprisonment may be imposed for failure to obey this notice."
But the document is not a real subpoena.
"If a judge signs a subpoena, that is a document that says you have to come to court to face a fine or penalty, so that has to be signed by a judge. In this particular situation, the DA's office skipped going to court and getting it signed by a judge," Williams said.
"Our law doesn't allow DAs to do this. Our law requires that an attorney go to a judge for a subpoena," Councilwoman Susan Guidry said.
As reported by The Lens, the notice is for people to report to the DAs office for questioning - not to court, as a real subpoena would state.
"They also have the threat on top of it that says we will put you in jail if you don't come talk to us at our office. Do you understand how that might make someone feel?" Williams said.
"No wonder people in our community do not trust our criminal justice system," Guidry said.
DA Leon Cannizzaro said he takes full responsibility, but he doesn't believe his office did anything illegal.
"I take responsibility for the language on the subpoena with regard to the notices that were sent to witnesses whose testimony was essential to the prosecution of cases in Orleans Parish," Cannizzaro said. "The word 'subpoena' should not have appeared on the document. Again, as I said, that was my fault. We have amended that. I think it should be noted, however, that no one who ever received a DA's notice, even if it was labeled as a district attorney subpoena, has ever suffered any sanction or consequences by imprisonment or fine by the court because we weren't authorized to do that."
Cannizzaro told FOX 8 that the DA's office has been sending out those notices for more than 30 years.
The DA's office decided to change its policy and will now send out a request called a "Notice to Appear" instead.
The new notice will also discard the legal reference at the top of the page.