A federal judge has refused to throw out a lawsuit alleging Chicago police illegally searched 250 to 300 adults and children who attended a South Side basketball tournament two years ago in an attempt to head off a gang shooting.
U.S. District Judge Elaine Bucklo set a Dec. 1 trial date to hear the claims that at the conclusion of the basketball game, police officers blocked exits of the Chicago Park District's Stateway Gardens fieldhouse at 3658 S. State St. and refused to allow anyone to leave until they submitted to a search.
Lawyers Tom Peters and Craig Futterman contend the searches--which included diaper bags and the pockets and clothing of young children--were illegal because there was no cause and were unreasonably invasive.
Chicago police maintain the searches were prompted by a tip from an informant that several carloads of armed gang members were en route to the fieldhouse to take revenge on rival gang members for an earlier fight. Two guns were recovered at the scene.
Ernest Brown, then the commander of the police public housing unit, said in a deposition in the case that he chose not to have officers stationed outside the fieldhouse or search people entering because he believed gang members were gambling on the game and would not jeopardize their bets with violence.
He added that "gang members wager capacious sums of money on basketball games held in public housing. So it's very unlikely that any event or anyone is going to be allowed to disrupt an event in the middle of the game."
"I seriously doubt that gangbangers hellbent on revenge always wait until the last bet is collected to take action," Peters said. "The tip did not exist.
"And if it was true, that means the police were willing to gamble the lives of 300 people and let gang members take guns inside the fieldhouse on the basis of a belief that nothing would happen to innocent people until after the game because gangbangers were betting on the outcome."
Brown, now the commander of the Grand Crossing District, denied in the deposition that officers were not posted outside before the event as a strategy to lure gang members to bring guns inside to be confiscated during the exit searches.
He testified that had police been present prior to the game, gang members would probably have hidden their guns outside. Brown said that absent a police presence, "somebody could enter with a weapon."
Lawyers for the firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, who have billed the city $872,000 to defend it and police officers for the last two years, contend police did not block the exits and did not search anyone without a reasonable suspicion that they could have a firearm. They also argued police officers are immune from damages.
In allowing the case to go forward, Bucklo did throw out claims that keeping the crowd inside the fieldhouse was an illegal detention.
However, the judge said, "An anonymous tip such as that alleged by the defendants would not, by itself, justify the wholesale, invasive search of large groups of people. ... If the jury accepts the plaintiffs' version ... immunity would not protect the officers; the need for individualized suspicion prior to a search for weapons has been clearly established doctrine for 35 years."
Jennifer Hoyle, spokeswoman for the city's Law Department, said, "We are disappointed with the judge's decision. At this time, a December trial date has been set, and we will continue to prepare for trial and examine other reasonable options that are open to us as this case proceeds."
In a deposition, Brown said he passed the tip to a sergeant and instructed him to "make sure that nobody was killed or injured."
Brown also testified that posting officers outside the fieldhouse before the game or conducting searches as a requirement for entry into the fieldhouse would have discouraged gang members from bringing guns there and that his job was getting guns off the street.
"I have a responsibility for public safety beyond one event," Brown testified. "It was my goal that if we could recover weapons ... we could thereby prevent them from being used on a future date."
Peters and Futterman contend there never was a tip and that telephone records of Brown and the police officer who has testified in a deposition that he used his cellphone to give the tip to Brown do not support Brown's version of events.