A leading pro-bono legal defense organization in Chicago has been negotiating with the Chicago Police Department and city of Chicago for months in order to convince officials to enforce resident’s right to attorney when they are arrested by police. Yet, despite the fact that negotiations have been ongoing since last July and there have been allegations of incommunicado detention at a facility known Homan Square, the organization says talks have been “fruitless” so far.
The solution that First Defense Legal Aid (FDLA) proposes is one they consider to be simple and constitutional. They request that all detainees be “granted phone calls within 2 hours of their arrest.” They also propose that the city post telephone numbers for legal aid “in easy view” of all detainees.
As reported by The Guardian, “Figures obtained by Chicago’s First Defense Legal Aid under a freedom-of-information request found that in 2013, lawyers were able to visit clients in police custody citywide for only 302 out of 143,398 arrestees – a rate of 0.2%.”
Eliza Solowiej, executive director of FDLA, declared at a press conference on March 31 at City Hall, the only way a person can have their right to access an attorney is “if someone happens to know you’re arrested and alerts legal defense for you.”
“We need to see everyone actually experience their right to counsel, their right to phone calls in order to interrupt this false confession epidemic,” Solowiej said as she referred to the millions of dollars in lawsuits the city has paid out for police abuse in recent years.
Community leader, husband and father, Charles Jones, recounted during the press conference how he was arrested by Chicago police and taken to Homan Square last week.
Immediately, upon arrival, Jones said he demanded a phone call but was told he had to wait. Jones continued to ask for his phone call and was later told that he would get his call when he was booked and processed. But, similar to other stories from detainees held for periods at Homan, he was not booked at that station. He was taken to another station six to eight hours later.
During the time that he was at Homan, Jones claimed that he was “denied all access to any outside communication,” which is “normal operating procedure” at most police stations in Chicago.
Jones said, “If you have a right to counsel, how can you access counsel if you can’t communicate with counsel? You can’t just send telepathic message, hey, lawyer, I’m at the station.”
An attorney volunteer with FDLA, April Kentala, who has been taking numerous calls from the organization’s legal defense hotline since November 2014, also spoke at the press conference. She talked about how she has been encountering police practices that do not “comport” with what she learned in law school about an individual’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to remain silent and have access to counsel.
“I’ve been in some situations where family members have called into the hotline aware that their loved ones have been taken into custody, and I’ve gone through the process of locating them by calling central booking,” Kentala recalled. “I’ve been directed to different district police stations only to find out that when I arrive there, even though it says in the system the arrestee has been taken to that station, they aren’t, in fact, there.”
According to Kentala, police tell her that the person might be at Homan Square. She may sit around and wait for a particular person to arrive at a district station. However, nobody will say how long that might take and in Chicago a person can be in police custody for up to 48 hours.
“I’ve gone down to Homan Square to try and track these people down,” Kentala shared. “I’ve been through the bizarre process of being led in through a side garage door and sitting in a small surveillance booth with ‘Judge Judy’ in the background waiting for someone resembling a police officer to tell me where my client is. Only to eventually come face to face with a detective who tells me, oh, gosh, the person I’m looking for isn’t there. They’re at the district station.”
When Kentala informs the detective that she was just at the district station and they were not there, the detective tells her that is incorrect. She goes back to the district station only to find that her client has just arrived.
“I wonder how long would my client have been at the Homan Street station without access to legal counsel had I not chased them down,” Kentala said. “They were not allowed to call anyone and even though someone called on their behalf I was still denied access to them for a period of time that I find unacceptable.”
“What FDLA is asking for today is for partnership from the Chicago Police Department to ensure that individuals in police custody be made aware of their right to counsel and be given the means to invoke that right. The right to counsel is meaningless if there are no means to invoke it,” Kentala declared.
“Since July,” Solowiej explained, the mayor and Chicago police \”have talked to us and said that they are considering the simple reforms of posting our number and making sure people have early access to the telephones in their police stations. This is only reasonable. This is something we’re asking them today. [Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy] can simply issue a directive saying make sure everybody can use the phone.”
“No one should be held incommunicado. This is a constitutional right. And post the number for legal aid so that these Miranda rights can actually be real,” Solowiej asserted.
To show this happens at other Chicago police stations, not just Homan, Darrius Lightfoot shared his story about being falsely detained by police for something minor, which he said he did not do.
I walked outside, got stopped. I said I do not consent to a search. They said you’re smart, huh? We’re going to lock you up. And they charged me with disorderly conduct. As soon as I got to the station, I said could I get my phone call? I asked them for a phone call as soon as I got to the station. They said you won’t get your phone call until you go to the back and get processed. I didn’t get to the back until four hours later. I was sitting there being asked questions, getting yelled at, being called names, for something that I never did, for knowing my rights. When I got to the back, I had to ask for my phone call. I didn’t get offered. I had to ask again. And they said you can use the pay phone.
When Lightfoot was given his call, he explained it would not go through to the FDLA hotline. He was unable to figure out how to fix the issue so he returned to his cell for four more additional hours.
The press conference was held hours before the last debate in a runoff election between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his Democratic Party challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. However, the press conference did not apparently get the attention of WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” which hosted the debate. Neither candidate was asked a substantive question about issues related to police abuse and alleged rights violations.
Nonetheless, police are systematically undermining and violating people’s right to their attorney. Mayor Emanuel and the wider city of Chicago are allowing this rampant abuse.
Attorneys and those who have survived this abuse simply ask for police to give detainees a phone call less than two hours after their arrest. They demand the city enforce the US Constitution and Illinois Constitution, which should be reasonable to city officials and not something that requires months upon months of negotiations.