Cops review time in custody

Ex-suspect’s suit says city police aren’t adhering to 48-hour limit.

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

Chicago police are reviewing how long officers can hold and interrogate suspects without bringing them before a judge, a key issue in a civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Except in extraordinary circumstances, police cannot hold a suspect for more than 48 hours unless a judge reviews the arrest and confirms that there is probable cause to believe the person has committed a crime, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1991.

But what constitutes an “extraordinary circumstance” is the subject of disagreement among legal experts and even among police departments.

Joliet police, for example, said they consider 48 hours to be a strict deadline. Police in Elgin and Waukegan said some cases justify 72 hours. Other departments said they have no set limit but look to the circumstances of each case.

Joseph Lopez of Chicago contends that in 2000, police held him for five days in a bleak interview room, where he says he was handcuffed to a wall, deprived of sleep and questioned repeatedly about the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy.

Lopez later was cleared of the crime. He sued the city in 2001 and amended his complaint late last year to allege that police routinely hold suspects beyond the 48-hour limit.

Lopez, who is seeking unspecified damages, hopes to bring his suit as a class action on behalf of other suspects he says were held too long.

In court filings, Chicago police say they follow proper procedures. But neither police nor Cook County State’s Atty. Dick Devine’s office would discuss how the current procedures work.

A police spokesman called the issue “a matter of private discussion between the superintendent and the state’s attorney.”

Civil rights lawyers contend holding suspects for more than 48 hours can lead to coerced and even false confessions. Police advocates say that in some cases it may take longer than two days to question a suspect and track down witnesses.

Robert Berlin, a Kane County assistant state’s attorney who advises Elgin police, said police can consider many factors, including public safety, when deciding how long to hold a suspect.

“There’s no steadfast rule,” Berlin said. With a potentially dangerous person, “there’s a reluctance to put somebody back on the street.”

The issue is a touchy one for authorities in Chicago. In 1986 a federal judge lambasted an earlier Chicago police policy, known as “hold past court call,” which had allowed police to hold suspects for extended periods so they could investigate more thoroughly.

U.S. District Judge George Leighton declared the policy unconstitutional.

“Hoping to build a case is not a permissible reason for jailing someone indefinitely,” he wrote. The day after Leighton’s ruling, Chicago police rescinded the policy.

Lopez’s lawyers contend in court filings that “hold past court call” has been quietly reinstated and that many of the more than 250,000 people that Chicago police arrest each year are not taken before a judge on time.

In a deposition in July, Chicago homicide Detective James DeLaFont said he had been involved in 10 to 15 cases in the previous year in which suspects were held for more than 48 hours without a hearing.

DeLaFont said Lopez was held because police needed more time to investigate his conflicting alibis.

“We had to run all of these down, you know,” DeLaFont testified, according to court records. “That’s why he was there as long as he was.”

On July 24, 2000, Lopez was charged with first-degree murder. But a day later, police arrested another suspect, who they said confessed to the crime, and the charges against Lopez were dropped.

In the 1991 case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that 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” were not constitutional.

Joliet police have adhered strictly to the language of that case and do not hold suspects longer than 48 hours without a hearing, Deputy Chief Fred Hayes said.

Elgin police hold suspects for as long as 72 hours while they search for witnesses or conduct other investigations, said Lt. Mike Turner.

Detectives in Waukegan also may hold a suspect for 72 hours, but only with prior approval from the Lake County state’s attorney’s office, police said.

Berlin, the prosecutor in Kane County, cited a 1999 Illinois appeals court decision in which a three-judge panel refused to suppress the confession of a Chicago man, even though police had held him for more than 65 hours without a hearing. That is a scenario that makes civil rights advocates uncomfortable.

“If you keep someone incommunicado long enough and apply enough pressure, you can get almost anyone to confess to something they didn’t do,” said Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center.



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