Clinic Files Suit Against Chicago Police Department

The Chicago Police Department's practice of holding witnesses in criminal investigations happens far too often, two legal aid officials charges Wednesday.

"As a matter of police practices, the Chicago Police Department takes witnesses—who they have no reason to think they've done anything wrong—and isolates them in a locked interrogations room with no access to food, phones, water, or family," said Craig Futterman, a law professor at the University of Chicago's Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.

On Tuesday, Futterman and another University of Chicago attorney, Locke E. Bowman of the U. of C.'s MacArthur Justice Center, files a class action lawsuit against the city, charging it with violating crime witnesses' constitutional rights. The lawsuit, which includes Police Supt. Philip Cline, seeks an injunction to stop the Chicago Police Department from regularly holding witnesses against their will in criminal investigations. Chicago has the only big city police department in the United States that carries out this practice, Futterman said.

This week's lawsuit resulted from a homicide last Saturday. A Southwest Side man, Ramon Ayala, 18, allegedly witnesses the murder at 24th Street and Christiana Avenue. Police picked up Ayala as a witness on Sunday.

Police refused to let Ayala see his sister at a local police station, who then contacted the First Defense Legal Aid clinic on Monday. The FDLA attorney was told he could not speak to Ayala, either, and U. of C. attorneys were contacted early Tuesday.

Police told Futterman and FDLA staff attorney Jessica Webb that because their client was a witness—and not a suspect—he did not have a right to see a lawyer. Requests for Ayala to be released were also denied.

"The city says people are locked in rooms of their own free will," Futterman said. "That's the fiction."

According to Futterman, witness detention happens "dozens of times each year, and it's not uncommon for witnesses to spend two or three days in interrogation rooms.

A Chicago Police Department spokeswoman, Jennifer Hoyle, would not comment on the lawsuit because she said she hadn't seen it. But she said the police department has already formally denied this charge in a similar lawsuit files last year by University of Chicago lawyers.

"We encourage witnesses to cooperate with police, but they can leave at any time, " Hoyle said.

But Webb able said police holding witnesses against their will is a common practice.

Since she began working at the FDLA clinic in January, "I've had multiple experiences like this," Webb said. "I don't know how many people would willingly stay in a police station in a small, windowless room for days on end. These people often say they've asked to leave and asked for an attorney."

When U. of C. attorneys files their lawsuit, Ayala had been held against his will for more than 40 hours. He was released shortly after the lawsuit was filed.

According to Webb, the lawsuit was just in time. In order to file for an injunction the witness has to be in police custody.

At least three previous lawsuits have been filed against Chicago police, alleging that witnesses have been held unfairly, Futterman said. In one of the previous lawsuits, a district court sided with witnesses, but an appellate court overturned that ruling. It did, however, state in its ruling that "it may well be true that witnesses' rights are being violated," according to Futterman.

Molly Brown is a reporter for the Medill News Service.