Clinic wins civil rights settlement after freeing wrongfully accused man

In July 2003, the Civil Rights Police Accountability Project and the Criminal Justice Project of the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic won a significant settlement in a federal civil rights case on the behalf of Nevles Traylor, a forty-four year old African American man from the South side of Chicago. The case involved acts of casual cruelty committed by two Chicago police officers against an innocent, indigent man who proved an easy target for a bully. On the afternoon of July 9, 2001, while Professor Craig Futterman and his students interviewed a witness in the Project's Stateway Gardens office regarding an incident in which Chicago police officers drove on the sidewalk and struck a teen with their police car, Mr. Traylor was riding his bicycle to his brother's home on South State Street. As Mr. Traylor rode across a sidewalk through Stateway Gardens apartments, Chicago police officers Piwnicki and Smith struck Mr. Traylor from behind with their squad car. As Mr. Traylor lay motionless, pinned and entangled between the police car and a wire fence, Officer Piwnicki (the driver) jumped out of the car and beat Mr. Traylor about the head. Stateway residents, following protocols developed by the Stateway Civil Rights Project, a collaborative project of the Police Accountability Project of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and Stateway residents, immediately began to document the incident. They recorded names and contact information of witnesses, the license plate and identifying information on the police car, badge numbers, and called 911 and the Office of Professional Standards for assistance. Other residents ran to the Mandel Clinic's Stateway office to notify Professor Futterman and his students of the incident. University of Chicago Law students John deMoulpied and Tara Thompson then observed and recorded the occurrences side-by-side with nearly one hundred residents.

To hide and justify their actions, Officers Piwnicki and Smith drafted false reports and initiated sham felony criminal charges against Mr. Traylor that required, if convicted, a minimum of four to fifteen years in prison. Mr. Traylor suffered significant pain and physical injuries as a result of the Officers striking and beating him. Mr. Traylor was also forced to endure the loss of his freedom, opportunity to support his family, and the stress and mental anguish associated with facing up to fifteen years in prison for a crime that Mr. Traylor did not commit. Mr. Traylor spent over four months under the control of the Cook County Department of Corrections, before then law student now alum, Mark Warnick, won a reduction in Mr. Traylor's bail allowing him to be released pending the outcome of the criminal charges.

Professor Herschella Conyers and her students in the Criminal Justice Project joined in the fight for Mr. Traylor's freedom. In addition, the Police Accountability and Criminal Justice Projects collaborated in bringing a federal civil rights suit charging Officers Piwnicki and Smith with police brutality and the false arrest of Mr. Traylor.

On June 4, 2003, after an almost two-year long fight and an evidentiary hearing involving six University of Chicago Law students (Shubha Sastry, Barbara Ho, Marcus Fruchter, John deMoulpied, Judith Bonilla, and John Carella) working under the supervision of Professors Conyers and Futterman, the Mandel Clinic persuaded Judge Clayton Crane, a Cook County Criminal Judge that Officers Piwnicki and Smith arrested Mr. Traylor without any probable cause, in violation of Mr. Traylor's Constitutional rights. The Court then dismissed all criminal charges against Mr. Traylor.

Following a settlement conference on June 30, 2003 before federal Magistrate Judge Geraldine Soat Brown (involving Professor Futterman, Recent Clinic Graduate Tara Thompson, and Jeff Mandell (2L), the Clinic won a precedent-setting settlement for Mr. Traylor. Following the court proceedings, Mr. Traylor still could not believe what we had accomplished together, "You all told me that you would fight for justice with me to the end, no matter where it would take us. I never thought anything could ever have come of this. Thank you."