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 the settlement. It stems from 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," said Melissa Stratton, a spokesperson for the city's law department. "In fact, the settlement agreement expressly states it is not an admission of liability."
But lawyers for the plaintiff, along with 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 insisted that the case is long overdue. He said there is no reason why suspects shouldn't see a judge within 12 hours after their arrest, noting that hearings in Cook County are held at least twice on weekdays and once on Sundays and holidays.
"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.
And unless they can afford to hire a private attorney, he adds, suspects won't have access to one until right before they see the judge. It's that vulnerability that's at the heart of the case.
The original 32-page complaint filed in October 2004 alleges, 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 further states that those conditions are recognized internationally as a method of mental torture intended to overcome a person's ability to reason.
Despite the recommendation to approve the settlement by the Corporation Counsel, Ald. James Balcer (11th), the lone dissenter of the settlement, called it "a slap in the face to the taxpayers of Illinois."
"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," he 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 the law department's spokesperson, Stratton. "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 that the police department has changed its ways. According to a law department statement released Wednesday following the settlement approval, 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 and, according to court records, stands to receive up to $5 million in legal fees.