14 may join police-custody suit

Ex-suspects claim cop mistreatment.

By: Michael Higgins, Chicago Tribune: October 24th, 2003

Fourteen people have filed sworn statements in federal court alleging that Chicago police mistreated them in interrogation sessions lasting two or more days, deprived them of adequate sleep and food and, in some cases, turned down their requests to speak to a lawyer.

The former suspects hope to join a federal lawsuit filed in 2001 by Joseph Lopez, who alleges police held him for four days in an interview room and repeatedly questioned him about the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy on July 19, 2000. Lopez, then 18, was charged with first-degree murder July 24. But police released him a few days later, saying a different suspect had given a videotaped confession.

Lopez’s lawyers filed the 14 sworn statements as part of their attempt to expand his suit into a class action, which could open up Chicago police interrogation practices to a rare level of public scrutiny. If a class action was approved, the plaintiffs’ lawyers would attempt to prove to a judge or jury that improper police tactics went far beyond Lopez’s case and would seek damages on behalf of thousands of former suspects.

Kareem Thomas, 26, of Chicago said police arrested him in 2001 and held him at the police station at 51st Street and Wentworth Avenue for four days as a carjacking suspect. When he asked to call an attorney, a detective told him “that wouldn’t be needed,” Thomas said.

“In those four days I maybe got half a day of sleep,” said Thomas, who was acquitted last year. “It was the third day when I [first] got my food. . . . It was pretty much a rough ordeal.”

Lopez’s lawyers hope to represent about 4,000 people they say Chicago police have wrongly detained and questioned since 1999 under a practice called “hold past court call” or “hold for continued investigation.”

The suspects should have been taken promptly to a judge to determine if there was probable cause to believe they had committed a crime, but instead they were interrogated in harsh conditions, said Lopez’s attorney, Michael Kanovitz.

“The Constitution requires that a judge decide whether there are grounds to hold somebody,” Kanovitz said. “The Chicago Police Department isn’t allowed to torture people while it makes up its mind whether it has grounds to hold them in the first place.”

City officials had no comment on the 14 sworn statements, which they are reviewing. But Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for the city’s Law Department, said city policies do not allow suspects to be mistreated.

“Our position is that people [in custody] are not denied food, a place to sleep safely or washroom facilities,” Hoyle said. “That’s not our policy.”

In the interview room

Police advocates stress that many of the toughest crimes are solved in the interview room, as detectives question suspects and learn the truth or catch them in a revealing lie. But critics say it is also a place where police are most tempted to go too far, abusing suspects’ rights in ways that lead to coerced or false confessions.

There have been concerns about lengthy Chicago police interrogations for decades, said Steve Drizin, a Northwestern University law professor who has urged police to videotape interrogations to weed out abusive tactics.

“As far as I know, there has not been a systemic-wide look into the patterns and practices of the Chicago Police Department in police interrogations, and there really needs to be,” Drizin said.

In their statements, none of the former suspects said they made a false confession. One said he was struck by a police officer at a station house.

But virtually all said they were handcuffed to the wall in police interview rooms with only a narrow bench to sit on. Almost all said they could not sleep. About half said they were not fed, or fed only when they talked to detectives.

Ten of the 14 said they were released without being charged, had their charges dropped or were acquitted. Others’ cases are pending or ended with a conviction on some charge.

City and county officials disagree sharply with Lopez’s attorneys on another key issue in the case: how soon suspects must be taken to court.

A 1991 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said police who hold a suspect for more than 48 hours must prove there was “a bona fide emergency or other extraordinary circumstance.” The court also said “delays for the purpose of gathering additional evidence to justify the arrest” are not constitutional.

In August, then-Police Supt. Terry Hillard amended Chicago’s policy to make clear that suspects must appear before a judge within 48 hours.

‘Circumstances, not the clock’

But even if a suspect is held longer, that is not necessarily a violation of the suspect’s rights, said John Gorman, spokesman for Cook County State’s Atty. Richard Devine.

“Our view of the case law is that the judge looks at all the circumstances, and not the clock,” Gorman said. He said prosecutors prefer that suspects not be held longer than 48 hours because a judge might rule that the suspect’s confession was not voluntary and suppress it.

But he also said interrogation can be critically important.

“What suspects often do is give up a part of the truth, and when they’re caught in a lie, they’ll give up another part of the truth to make themselves look better,” Gorman said. “One of the reasons that people are in custody that long is that they will slowly give up the truth.”

Gorman cited the “Girl X” case of Patrick Sykes, who was convicted in 2001 of brutally beating and sexually attacking a 9-year-old at the Cabrini-Green housing complex.

Sykes was in custody for more than 50 hours without seeing a judge, Gorman said.

“But it was after that period of time that Patrick Sykes gave it up and provided information that was instrumental to convicting him,” he said.

Denny Robinson, 27, of Chicago is among those former suspects who insists he was telling police the truth. He said he was a postal worker when he was arrested in October 2000 and questioned for three days about shots fired at a woman’s house.

“It was like I was going out of my mind,” said Robinson, who said he spent more than two years in Cook County Jail awaiting trial before being found not guilty. “If I don’t know anything, how can I give them anything?”


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