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Cook County prosecutors told not to subpoena witnesses for trial preparation as office revamps policies

Megan Crepeau, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO — Some Cook County prosecutors have been instructed not to subpoena witnesses for dates when their testimony is not required in court, the Tribune has learned, halting a common practice of seeking court orders summoning witnesses to meet with prosecutors ahead of trial.

A spokesperson for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx said that official guidance on the use of subpoenas is in the works but has not been finalized. However, prosecutors in some parts of the office were given the instruction last week, multiple sources confirmed.

The advisement came days after a lawsuit filed in federal court last week alleged that it is unconstitutional and abusive to subpoena witnesses simply to help prosecutors prepare for trial.

Criticism of trial-prep subpoenas grew louder after word spread about the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of a young mother who spent three weeks in jail for not responding to a subpoena that summoned her to prosecutors’ offices for preparation.

The subpoena process is meant to compel someone’s appearance in court — not their cooperation with prosecutors, legal observers said. Defense attorneys have also long criticized the practice, particularly when it results in witnesses being locked up.

The practice of seeking trial-prep subpoenas has been commonplace for some Cook County prosecutors, and some judges even encouraged them. But in some parts of the state’s attorney’s office, such subpoenas were largely abandoned years ago, sources told the Tribune.

 

Some rank-and-file prosecutors were also recently instructed to notify supervisors if they want to petition for contempt charges for people who do not comply with subpoenas, leading to speculation that such subpoenas would not be consistently enforced, which they said could make it harder to get witnesses through the door even on trial dates.

A spokesperson for Foxx’s office reiterated that no new policy has been finalized, and said they will address any concerns raised by the staff as the official guidance is being completed.

The core of the problem is difficult to address with any policy: Many people simply do not want to cooperate with police or prosecutors.

Multiple courthouse sources, including longtime prosecutors, were candid about the reasons. People in communities affected by violence often fear for their safety if they become known as cooperators. Nobody is eager to sit in a room full of strangers and recount the most traumatic experiences of their lives. And some witnesses simply do not trust law enforcement.

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