Legal Rights Group Challenges Chicago Police Policy

By Lawrence Morahan | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - Legal activists are suing the Chicago Police Department over its alleged policy of detaining and interrogating people, in some cases for days, without filing charges.

Locke Bowman, legal director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said his clients were locked in a police interrogation room for questioning for as long as two days, denied access to legal counsel and in some cases refused food or the use of a bathroom.

"What the case alleges is that as a matter of policy in this situation, the police have taken and continue to take the witnesses to police stations, where they lock them in small interrogation rooms and refuse to permit them to leave until they've provided the police with the information that the officers want," Bowman said.

Lawyers with the MacArthur Justice Center, Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and First Defense Legal Aid filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging individual violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution by police officers.

The lawsuit contends that the witnesses' treatment, which occurred in separate incidents over the course of two years, represents a widespread practice and policy of the Chicago Police Department as part of its investigation protocol.

Bowman called the process "very disturbing" and warned the case could have broad implications, particularly in light of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act.

"Whether it be in the context of a domestic murder investigation or in the context of concern about terrorist activity, the authorities in this country have no right to lock up people merely because they're witnesses, not unless there's been some kind of judicial intervention," Bowman said.

A spokesman for the Chicago Police Department declined to comment on litigation he said was pending.

John J. Curry, a Chicago attorney formally with the U.S. Department of Justice, said a cursory review of the lawsuit suggests the issue involves a state homicide investigation of "possible if not probable gang-related killings."

City police likely were attempting to put pressure on alleged witnesses, people acquainted with individuals who may have witnessed a crime or may have sympathies to one gang or other, Curry said.

"It's one of those I consider on the fringes of constitutional law," Curry said. Dating to the Nixon era, the police have tried to be more creative in attempting to investigate serious crimes like homicide or gang-related crimes and have used approaches of this sort to elicit evidence as necessary for the case.

In the Nixon era there, police departments found themselves using more aggressive approaches to investigating some serious crimes in the wake of newer restrictions such as the Miranda Rights of suspects, Curry noted.

"Obviously, unreasonable seizure is prohibited by the Constitution, but a continual dynamic is: What is the definition of reasonable or unreasonable, under the circumstances?" Curry said.

While attorneys for the plaintiffs are claiming the seizures are unreasonable, it's clear that the argument can be made that, under the circumstances, the detentions were indeed reasonable, Curry added.

"The detention is one of outgrowth of extremely serious crime, and there's no contention that these people are simply picked up at random, so the inference is that there was some motivation that these are people with knowledge and therefore merited further scrutiny," Curry said.

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