NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - "I was incredibly surprised at this practice by the district attorney," said Katie Schwartzmann with the MacArthur Justice Center.
When Schwartzmann learned about a practice used by the New Orleans District Attorney's office to issue what have been called "fake subpoenas," she said they decided to file a lawsuit.
"It comes out in the news that they're just sending subpoenas out without ever running them in front of a judge, without having a judge's signature on them," Schwartzmann said.
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro told FOX 8 last month that his office would sometimes send a document like that to potential witnesses in criminal cases. It says "Subpoena," and under that says, "A fine or imprisonment may be imposed for failure to obey this notice."
The document, though, was not a real document.
"I think it should be noted, however, that no one who ever received a DA's notice, even if it was labeled, "A District Attorney Subpoena" has ever suffered a sanction or consequence by imprisonment by the court, because we weren't authorized to do that," District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said.
That's because a judge had never signed the document. Cannizzaro said while it was a practice used for many years, he would take responsibility for it.
"The word subpoena should not have appeared on the document. That's my fault. We have amended that, and we are going to move forward with regards to that," Cannizzaro said.
Schwartzmann says the lawsuit is asking the court to order Cannizzaro to now comply with a public records request, made by the MacArthur Justice Center back in 2015, asking for at least two years of district attorney subpoena records.
"It's our position that they should have turned all those documents over to us two years ago when we asked for all of those subpoenas. Those are documents that they were handing out to the public as subpoenas, but they didn't turn any of them over," Schwartzmann said.
Cannizzaro isn't commenting on the lawsuit because it's considered pending litigation. FOX 8, however , obtained through a source an inter-office memo that explains a brand new witness contact policy. According to the source, the letter is now being sent to potential witnesses. It does not say "subpoena" and instead is a letter requesting a person to meet with someone from the DA's office.