City pays $16M in class-action police abuse suit
CHICAGO — The City of Chicago is not admitting it violated the constitutional rights of people arrested by the Chicago Police Department despite agreeing to a $16.5 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit that may affect more than 500,000 people arrested since 1999.
The City Council voted Wednesday night to approve a settlement to a civil rights lawsuit filed in 2004 that alleged the police detained people who were arrested without warrants for too long before bringing them before a judge, and denied them access to bedding, meals and bathrooms.
“There is no admission of liability,” Melissa Stratton, spokeswoman for the city’s law department, said Thursday. “In fact, the settlement agreement expressly states it is not an admission of liability.”
But lawyers for the plaintiff and criminal defense experts in Chicago maintain that police routinely disregard suspects’ constitutional rights.
“The Constitution requires you to be promptly brought before a judge. Chicago has been systemically violating that now for years,” said Craig Futterman, a clinical law professor at University of Chicago and director of the school’s Civil Rights Police Accountability Project.
Futterman was not involved in this lawsuit, but said the case is long overdue. He said in Cook County, where hearings are held at least twice on weekdays and once on Sundays and holidays, there is no reason suspects shouldn’t see a judge within 12 hours after their arrest.
“The point between arrest and seeing a judge, especially for people without means, is one of the most vulnerable periods in which a person is capable of being abused,” Futterman said. Unless they can afford to hire a private attorney, suspects won’t have access to one until right before they see the judge, he said.
It’s that vulnerability that’s at the heart of the case. The original 32-page complaint filed in October 2004 alleged, for instance, that interrogation room detentions “are not only physically tortuous, they are psychologically disorienting in a manner that can lead to increased suggestibility for the suspect being interrogated and, ultimately, to false confessions.” It argues those conditions are intended to overcome a person’s ability to reason.
Despite the recommendation to approve the settlement by the Corporation Counsel, one elected official called it “a slap in the face to the taxpayers of Illinois.” Ald. James Balcer (11th) was the lone member of City Council to vote against approving the settlement Wednesday.
“I think it’s ridiculous to give someone money because they didn’t have a bed for 24 hours, because they weren’t fed for 16,” Balcer said in an interview.
The alderman said he wasn’t sure about the part of the suit that addresses people held for more than 48 hours without seeing a judge, because he believes in due process. But for the remainder of the claimants, he had little sympathy.
“I think about people who are homeless who don’t have beds, people who are hungry,” Balcer said. “Let’s talk about our troops in Afghanistan. They don’t have beds.”
Though it might seem remarkable to some that there would be upwards of 500,000 allegations of civil rights violations against the police, both sides seemed unfazed by the sheer number of class members.
“Cases take time to wind their way through the judicial process,” said Stratton, the city law department spokeswoman. “The Chicago Police Department comes into contact with many people.”
Criminal defense experts had a different way of phrasing it.
“If it’s a systematic, routine practice by CPD that’s been going on for years, then the numbers add up,” said Joseph Margulies, assistant director of the MacArthur Justice Project and clinical professor at Northwestern University Law School. “I’m not at all surprised that there could be as many as half a million claims.”
The city maintains the Police Department has changed its ways. In a press release following the City Council approval of the settlement Wednesday, the law department said the city modified conditions of interrogation rooms beginning in October 2008 and is currently procuring mattress pads for lock-up facilities.
“A big part of what happened in addition to the money is that CPD made substantive changes,” said Michael Kanovitz, a partner at Loevy & Loevy, the firm that brought the class-action case against the Police Department and stands to receive up to $5 million in legal fees, according to court documents.
The city also said it created a “duty judge” system in March 2008 to make judges available for probable cause hearings within 48 hours of arrests, but asserted that an arrestee’s claim to being constitutionally entitled to a hearing within 48 hours stems from a 1994 change in the law.
Not so, according to Futterman of the Civil Rights Police Accountability Project.
“That order doesn’t say anything more than ‘follow the law that’s been in existence for many, many years,’” he said, citing Gerstein v. Pugh, a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court decision. “I’m not even sure that their 2008 change in policy is even in accordance with what the Constitution requires, while it certainly is an improvement.”
Yet none of that is relevant unless the new policies are actually being followed.
“Anecdotally, I receive calls and hear reports of people who are held beyond that time without cause, on a regular basis, through the present,” Futterman said.
Settlement DetailsThere are three classes of people in this settlement, although one person may be entitled to multiple payments if they fall into more than one category or were detained multiple times. You may be entitled to money if you fall within one of these categories:
1) People who were arrested without a warrant and did not have a probable cause hearing within 48 hours, between March 15, 1999, and Feb. 10, 2008. Members of this class may receive up to $3000.
2) People who were held for more than 16 hours in an interview room without being given bedding, regular meals or regular access to a bathroom, between Oct. 21, 2001, and March 10, 2010. Members of this class may receive up to $2000.
3) People who were held in lock-up overnight without being given bedding, between October 21, 2001 and March 10, 2010. Members of this class may receive up to $90.
Attorneys for the plaintiff claim there are 12,000 members of class 1, 2000 members of class 2 and potentially 500,000 members of class 3.
How to file a claim
To receive a payment under the settlement, you have to file a claim form by the October 25, 2010 deadline, according to plaintiff’s attorney Michael Kanovitz.
The claim form must be notarized by a licensed notary public. Many banks, currency exchange offices and print shops offer that service for a small fee.
If the date of your arrest matches a database of arrests provided by Chicago Police Department, no other information will be required. If the arrest database does not reflect your arrest, the court-appointed claims administrator will let you know what additional information you must provide. That may include a court record or other proof of your arrest.
Claim notices and forms will be mailed out in early June by the claims administrator to class members already identified by lawyers in the case. Advertisements will also be placed in local newspapers and in Prison Legal News.
However, if you do not receive a notice in the mail, or if you have moved and are afraid the claim notice will not reach your address, you can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, address and phone number, which will be passed on to the claims administrator.