Wednesday, February 10, 2010

First Defense Legal Aid

First Defense Legal Aid is a Chicago not-for-profit organization that provides 24 hour, free legal representation to people in the custody of the Chicago Police Department.

FDLA was created in 1995. It's creation was in response to community complaints about the treatment of those in custody in Chicago jails. I wasn't around back then but the stories are pretty horrible. I am not going to repeat anything I have heard, however, because I don't know them to be true factually. I will say, though, nothing I heard was beyond belief, knowing what I know.

By law a suspect can be kept in custody for up to 48 hours before they are either brought before a judge (after felony charges are approved) or are released. A lot bad things can happen in 48 hours in the wrong situation.

I have seen, in person and on video, the coercive interrogation techniques of CPD detectives. Having an attorney advise the suspect not to talk can avoid a lot of problems. This is especially true if the suspect is innocent. And some are. 

FDLA is staffed by two attorneys that handle calls during normal business hours, Monday through Friday. Volunteer attorneys, on a pro bono basis, are on call at all other times. A shift lasts 12 hours, either from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm or 6:00 pm to 6:00 am.

Most of the attorneys who volunteer are not criminal attorneys. I have been involved with FDLA since fall 2008. On some shifts I handle no calls. But on others it can be busy. The answering service attempts to pre-screen the caller to make sure FDLA can help them.

More often than not, the caller is the suspect's mother. Typically the suspect has been in custody for 12-24 hours and the police won't give out any information. Mothers tend to freak out when their son is in police custody and they don't know why. Or even worse, what's going to happen.

Once we determine someone is in custody pursuant to an active investigation, we go to the police station where the suspect is being held. We demand to see our client and eventually we are allowed to do so. Stating the CPD is not real nice to attorneys that show up in this manner is a slight understatement. Hostile would be inaccurate, but annoyed would not be.

Last Friday night I was called by a woman whose son was being questioned about a homicide. That's a pretty big deal. Homicide detectives are relentless.

I took the call at 8:00 pm and was at the police station shortly after 8:30 pm. It was snowing so I had to drive a little slower than usual. I announced myself at the front desk and showed my ID. The detectives were called and both came downstairs a few minutes later.

I told them I wanted to see my client. I was asked for credentials. I was told he had not asked for a lawyer. But they would tell him I was there and if he wanted to talk with me, I would be allowed to see him.

We went upstairs. My bar card and county attorney ID were photocopied. I was searched and led to the interview room. I knew the video and sound feeds inside the interview room were on and being recorded. All homicide interrogations have to be video taped by law.

I was prepared to ask them to be turned off but I didn't have to. A third detective walked up to the machine that controls the recording system. Right in front of me he inserted the key to the box, opened it, and turned it all off. The box was closed and locked.

To my surprise, I was handed the key to the box and asked to return it when I was done talking to my client. The detective unlocked the door and told me to knock when I was done.

The door opened and I walked in. It was a typical CPD interview room. Small. Maybe 8' x 7'. No windows. White walls with crap written all over them. A huge metal ring protruding from the wall where handcuffs can be attached. And a 12" wide metal bench attached to the rear wall. It doesn't run the entire span of the wall and couldn't have been quite 6 ft in length. That's it. No chairs. No table. No toilet.

You can also not turn off the very bright light from inside the room. And the smell was beyond description.

Sitting on the bench was the very tired looking client. He had been in custody for about 41 hours. I introduced myself and told him I was contacted by his mother. I told him the video feed was turned off but I still didn't want him to discuss anything with me.

He was advised not to speak with detectives after I left. At that point, I assured him there was nothing he could tell them that would help his situation. By then, they either had a case or they didn't. He understood. My entire conversation with him took about 10 minutes.

I knocked on the door. Within seconds it was opened. I stepped out. I told the detective there was to be no further questioning without my presence. My business card was handed to him and I said "I know how this works. You either have a case you can get through felony review or you don't. You're getting close to 48 hours, aren't you?"

He nodded. This detective was about as pleasant a cop I have dealt with. He was professional but looked frustrated and a little tired. I thanked him for his cooperation and left.

The client was released early Saturday morning without charge.


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Please feel free to offer comments and opinions. However, if you require legal assistance please call 312-504-4554 to speak with me personally.