New Orleans city council votes to end jailing uncooperative victims

Council members approved ending the jailing of sexual assault victims who resist testifying

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — City Council members in New Orleans unanimously approved a resolution Thursday calling for an end to the jailing of sexual assault or domestic violence victims who resist testifying against their suspected assailants.

The vote put the council directly at odds with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, who had opposed the resolution.

Nobody spoke against the resolution at Thursday's council meeting but Cannizzaro's office issued a statement the night before saying the use of "material witness" warrants for the arrest of uncooperative victims is rare, but sometimes needed to get critical testimony against dangerous offenders.

"We discourage the City Council from adopting a public policy that will greatly embolden domestic abusers, child abusers and sex criminals to intimidate, threaten, harass and coerce their victims and witnesses into staying silent," the statement said.

Proponents of the resolution, including the local court system watchdog group Court Watch NOLA and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, rejected Cannizzaro's argument. They said threatening victims with jail is counterproductive, leading to distrust of police and the criminal justice system by crime victims.

"It is misogynistic. It is barbaric and it is despicable and there's no two ways about it," declared the council's president, Jason Williams, a potential opponent for Cannizzaro in next year's election.

Court Watch NOLA had condemned the practice of "material witness" arrests in a report released in 2017.

"We suffer from a dearth of confidence in law enforcement," Court Watch NOLA director Simone Levine told the council.

Cannizzaro's office said in a Wednesday news release that its review shows that, in the last five years, only 28 people have been taken into custody on material witness warrants, which can result in jail, or the threat of jail, for victims who won't cooperate.

"Of that number, 21 were involved in cases of murder or attempted murder; two involved sex crimes," the statement said.

It said the warrants are sought from a judge when the witness' testimony is deemed crucial to keep dangerous offenders locked up.

Court Watch NOLA, which uses volunteers to monitor court cases, acknowledges in its last report on the practice that it diminished from 2016 to 2017.

The report said that out of a total of 19 material witness warrants issued in 2016, one was for a domestic violence victim and three were for victims of sex crimes. The practice diminished in 2017, when the organization found only one material witness warrant for a domestic violence victim out of seven such warrants issued. Figures for 2018 were not available.

Court Watch NOLA has called for an end to the arrest and jailing of domestic violence and sex crime victims and a protocol for the use of material witness warrants in other cases that would weigh factors including safety and emotional trauma of the victim.

Opponents of the practice also filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2017.

That lawsuit said one plaintiff was jailed for five days on a material witness warrant after declining to pursue charges against a man who shattered her cellphone during a fight. It said another plaintiff, a victim of sex trafficking, was jailed for more than 100 days on a material witness warrant.

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