Cook County Public Defender, Community Groups, and Defense Attorneys File Lawsuit Against City of Chicago for Denying People in Police Custody Access to Counsel and Phones
Coalition, including #LetUsBreathe Collective, Black Lives Matter Chicago, National Lawyers Guild calls for immediate court intervention
CHICAGO – The Cook County Public Defender on Monday joined a broad coalition of community groups, activists, and attorneys in filing a lawsuit against the City of Chicago for denying people in police custody access to counsel and phones.
The lawsuit further states that the City’s history of unlawful refusals became more widespread following the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent citywide protests over police brutality and racism.
“Since 1963, the law has required that every person arrested is entitled to communicate with their loved ones and counsel,” said Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli. “For seven decades, Chicago police have not been held accountable for this systemic violation of human rights. If the police just followed the law, we would no longer be the false confession capital of the world and communities would have greater trust for and cooperation with the Chicago Police Department.”
Under Illinois law, people who are arrested have the right to communicate and consult with an attorney and the right to make phone calls within an hour of arriving at their first place of custody. However, the Chicago Police Department has a long history of depriving arrestees access to a phone to reach out to counsel or loved ones.
On Friday, May 29, and throughout that following weeks, more than 2,600 demonstrators were arrested by CPD and many were denied access to counsel. The lawsuit details how CPD systemically impeded attorneys from finding and talking to their clients.
In filing the suit, the Public Defender joins a coalition that includes #LetUsBreathe Collective, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Stop Chicago, UMedics, and GoodKids MadCity. Each organization has members who were detained and denied their right to make a phone call and contact their attorneys. The National Lawyers Guild Chicago, also a plaintiff in the suit, has been denied access to clients in police stations, including during the recent protests.
”On Sunday May 31st, I was slammed to the ground and beaten with batons by CPD while trying to protect my brother and his fiancée, #LetUsBreathe co-founders Damon Williams and Jennifer Pagán, and our comrade Christopher Brown,” said Kristiana Rae Colón of the #LetUsBreathe Collective. “Horrified by the excessive force and unjust targeting of my family and fellow organizers, I did my best to intervene and was injured in the process. When I arrived at 51st & Wentworth to try and locate them, the supervising officer told me they weren’t there. I asked again if he was telling the truth and he said he had no reason to lie to me. After several hours of fear and confusion, it turned out they were there after all, but were denied access to counsel for several more hours. Our organization supports mutual aid efforts across the South & West sides, and had to redirect our time and resources to a rapid response rally to get our people out of jail. This is one of the many ways superfluous police encounters are a theft of the energy that should be spent on keeping people safe.”
“I sat in the hospital handcuffed to a wheelchair for nearly 8 hours before I saw a lawyer,” said activist and artist Malcolm London, who was arrested following a protest on May 31, 2020. “I hadn’t slept. I thought I was alone. I was afraid I would be locked up with no end in sight. I wasn’t the only person in custody crying out for information and asking to talk to my lawyer. I have nightmares about being in custody and terrified that I’d be locked up without any explanation or contact with the outside world.”
The City and the Chicago Police Department has used the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to deny people their rights while under arrest. After Gov. Pritzker issued his stay-at-home order on March 20, the Public Defender was forced to curtail in-person attorney-client visits, and informed CPD that all attorney-client conversations would take place by phone until further notice. CPD refused to coordinate mandatory confidential telephone visits for clients in custody unless and until the Public Defender agreed that CPD would not be liable if they overheard any attorney-client conversations. The Public Defender alternatively asked for virtual visits with clients, similar to the system used by the Cook County State’s Attorney to talk to witnesses. That request was denied.
Between April 16, 2020 and June 5, 2020, the Public Defender’s Office surveyed 1,468 people in bond court. Nearly a quarter (23%) stated that CPD never offered them access to a phone at any point while they were detained at the police station. Those who were allowed phone access were forced to wait an average of 4.2 hours.
“Denying phone access is a key CPD scare tactic to impede access to counsel,” said Alexa Van Brunt of the MacArthur Justice Center, which represents the plaintiffs. “The result is that detainees are cut off entirely, without legal guidance or protection from police coercion.”
The recent practice is just an exacerbation of the decades-long practice to deny arrestees access to attorneys and phone calls. It is a practice that was called out by the current Mayor when she was part of the Police Accountability Task Force that formed following the shooting of Laquan McDonald.
“We had documented for decades how the denial of phone access leads to false arrests, false charges and wrongful convictions, and costs the City money,” explained First Defense Legal Aid Executive Director Eliza Solowiej, who served on the Task Force with the current Mayor, and was part of the team that found that requiring access to phones with in a hour of arrest (as required by state law) would be one of the foundational reforms to ending police misconduct.
Plaintiffs have filed a writ of mandamus in the Circuit Court of Cook County Chancery Division to force the City to comply with Illinois law governing access to counsel and to phones.
Plaintiffs are represented by Brendan Shiller of Shiller Preyar Jarard & Samuels, Craig Futterman of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, Alexa Van Brunt of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Sheila A. Bedi of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Joey L. Mogul of the People’s Law Office, and Daniel Massoglia of First Defense Legal Aid.