LAWNDALE — Attorneys at First Defense Legal Aid are demanding that the city council get serious about defending the constitutional rights of people in the custody of the Chicago Police Department.
The organization challenged the aldermen on the city’s Public Safety Committee to hold a public hearing on an ordinance that would require police to allow people under arrest to call for an attorney within one hour of their arrest. If a hearing is not set before Dec. 21, First Defense Legal Aid staffers have pledged to plunge themselves into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan.
The demonstration also hinges on meeting a donation goal of $500 per staff member who has pledged to jump in, which would help the nonprofit to continue providing 24-hour free legal representation and Know Your Rights trainings.
But why is the legal team diving into icy cold water to pressure the aldermen?
“It seems like something that isn’t particularly reasonable,” said staff attorney Daniel Massoglia. “Just like waiting for days to give somebody a phone call isn’t particularly reasonable.”
Having prompt access to an attorney can be a matter of life and death, losing a job, or even losing a child, Massoglia said, especially for neighborhoods like Austin, Englewood and North Lawndale where First Defense Legal Aid has its biggest footprint.
Massoglia said many people are not allowed to make phone calls until they have been in custody for around three days, and by that time they may already be scheduled for a bond hearing. But the law in Illinois is clear that people under police custody have the right to call a lawyer within a “reasonable time” after being arrested.
But the attorneys said CPD has a very different idea of what a “reasonable time” is.
CPD said in a statement that their policy meets the state requirements and fulfills the constitutional rights that guarantee legal representation for people detained at the station.
“Arrestees are permitted to make a reasonable number of telephone calls to communicate with their attorney, family, or friends within a reasonable period of time after their arrival at the first place of custody,” said Officer Michael Carroll from the CPD Office of News Affairs.
But according First Defense Legal Aid, surveys conducted by CPD and the Office of the Cook County Public Defender showed that less than two percent of arrestees actually get legal representation while they are at the police station. That means many are alone and without legal advice until after they are interrogated by the police.
“There’s no way you can consider it reasonable to hold somebody for hours and hours and not giving them a phone call, Massoglia said. “There’s no justification for that from a public safety perspective.”
But the Illinois Administrative Code already defines a reasonable amount of time in this context as “generally within the first hour” of arrival at the place of custody.
First Defense Legal Aid’s Executive Director Eliza Solowiej will also be joining other staffers to jump in the lake if their hearing date isn’t set. Solowiej said she is dreading the possibility of taking the midwinter plunge, that just the thought makes her uncomfortable. But the issue is simply too pressing not to do everything she can to get the city to take action immediately.
“Chicago is way behind,” Solowiej said, adding that most other jurisdictions in the country define an enforceable standard for allowing arrestees to make phone calls within 20 minutes to three hours of being arrested.
Solowiej met on Thursday with Alderman Taliaferro, (29th) who chairs the Public Safety Committee, to push for a hearing to be scheduled. According to Solowiej, “They do have multiple meetings scheduled before Dec. 21, so it is possible for him to get a hearing date set in time to save us from those icy waters… and Chicago from routine incommunicado detention.”
The ordinance was first introduced to City Council in 2016, and was reintroduced in June where it found support from many aldermen before being sent to the committee.
Ald. Taliaferro said the lake will be freezing cold in December, so he hopes to avoid anybody jumping in the lake as a political demonstration.
“It’s my goal not to sit on ordinances… My goal is not to sit on this one either. I understand it was in committee for quite a while the last time,” Taliaferro said.
Taliaferro said he will be working to coordinate with law enforcement officials and the mayor’s office on moving forward with the ordinance. However, he said the city must be wary about creating laws that may conflict with state statutes, and so the city must take guidance from the state.
“We have to be considered about running afoul of state laws… I just don’t think we can leave out the agencies that will have a significant say in this ordinance,” Taliaferro said.
The alderman agreed that there was no public safety reason he could think of for denying a detainee access to a phone for hours or days after their arrest.
However, he advised against anybody submerging themselves in the water just to make a point.
But the staff at First Defense Legal Aid said their team of demonstrators from the organizations is growing, and they are welcoming additional volunteers to jump in the lake with them in solidarity.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.