Monday, April 14, 2008

A Tragic Policy Long Enforced by the City of Detroit

The City of Detroit Police Department, particularly the homicide section, for years and years employed and knowingly enforced a policy of actually arresting witnesses, not suspects to a homicide. Whether or not it was a result of being under tremendous pressure to solve crimes (for years Detroit had the dubious title of "murder capital of the world"), or because the homicide section was understaffed, or whether it was a simple question of laziness on the part of certain investigating officers, the result was the same – the blatant and continuous violation of the constitutional rights of the citizens of Detroit who were being arrested without probable cause. In many instances the investigating officers from the homicide department did not even know whether or not the people they were arresting actually were "witnesses" to the crime of homicide but they may have only heard through hearsay or had a hunch that these individuals knew something about a murder that had been committed. Suffice it to say, that a witness to a crime cannot be arrested in order for the police to investigate a crime, absent a court order. Over the years and through the reigns of numerous police chiefs, the Detroit Police Department arrested hundreds if not thousands of witnesses, without first getting court orders to do so. This practice continued for so many years in the community that many people thought there was actually something called a "72 hour" rule, meaning that the police could legally hold someone for up to 72 hours before letting them go without facing liability. This is not and never was, the law.
From 2001 through 2006, I along with several other attorneys brought numerous cases of false arrest seeking compensatory damages for witnesses who had been arrested under these circumstances. Dozens of people received substantial remuneration for this blatant violation of their constitutional rights by the Detroit Police Department which resulted in multimillion dollar settlements.
From the conditions giving rise to their initial arrest, throughout the time that many of these witnesses were incarcerated, until the time that they were released, the insult upon their integrity was horrendous. First, many times homicide investigating officers would appear at a scene of the homicide and merely start arresting people who they thought may know something abut the murder; it didn't matter whether the police actually thought they had a suspect on their hands. For one to be arrested in front of one’s neighbors and led out from their homes in handcuffs and placed in police cars was humiliating enough; many neighbors would become suspicious and rumors would naturally start that "so and so" has been arrested for murder. Usually, these people were released after 2 or 3 days – but the suspicion lingered on, often making it intolerable for them to live in the same neighborhood anymore; some even moved out of state to get away from the stigma of the arrest. These witnesses were then housed in terrible conditions at the main police headquarters 1300 Beaubien Street. Once at the same headquarters where numerous police chiefs sat only floors away, they would then be placed into holding cells that can only be compared to something out of a gulag. Roaches, vermin, lack of running water or other sanitary conditions, stone benches to sleep on, were just some of the problems. One officer who had worked for the homicide section for decades described under oath that the cell conditions under which these individuals were held was deplorable. These conditions, along with lack of adequate heat in the winter and adequate ventilation during the hot summer months, came to the attention of the United States Department of Justice in 2002-2003. Shortly thereafter all holding cells at this facility were closed because of the horrid conditions that existed there. Additionally, many who were held were denied phone calls with the outside world sometimes for up to two to three days; families would call about their whereabouts and were often given no information at all, even whether their loved ones were in police custody or not! In the vast majority of the cases, after our clients were kept under such unbearable conditions, they would then be simply "pushed out the back door" of the Detroit Police Department and told to walk home - It didn't matter if it was raining, snowing or in the middle of the night – they were just told to leave – the ultimate insult, the final part of this arrogant and blatantly unconstitutional policy and practice of the Detroit Police Department.
At the same time that we were bringing these lawsuits, the United States Department of Justice was investigating the practices of the Detroit Police Department of arresting witnesses, among other concerns. During the times that our lawsuits were pending, the City of Detroit entered into Consent Decrees with the Department of Justice. These Consent Decrees contain numerous conditions the City of Detroit Police Department must comply with in order to bring their practices and procedures within constitutional requirements. Significantly, sections of one Consent Decree dealt specifically with the requirements of what makes a lawful arrest and requires the Detroit Police Department to arrest only upon probable cause. For years after the Consent Decrees were signed, the City still argued about even the definition of "probable cause", something law students learn in their first year of school. Recent statistics suggest that the Detroit Police Department may have finally got the message and may have stopped their long standing practice of arresting witnesses. Only time will tell if the Detroit Police Department decides to follow even the most basic elemental principles of our Constitution.

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