On The Docket
On Friday, First Defense Legal Aid will honor 24 people for their commitment to the group’s mission of protecting the rights of suspects in police custody. Mayer, Brown LLP will host the event at its office, 71 S. Wacker Drive, 5 p.m. RSVP at first-defense.org/donate.
On The Docket
On Friday, First Defense Legal Aid will honor 24 people for their commitment to the group’s mission of protecting the rights of suspects in police custody. Mayer, Brown LLP will host the event at its office, 71 S. Wacker Drive, 5 p.m. RSVP at first-defense.org/donate.

The attorney sat on a bench at the police station in Jefferson Park and took out a sheet of paper.

At the top was the title, “Notice of Representation and Declaration of Rights.”

She was waiting on this April night to see a client who did not know her name and did not know she was there. Arrested for driving a car that police alleged he did not have permission to drive, the client did not even know he had an attorney.

“This is the most important thing about what we do,” April D. Kentala said about the declaration form.

“We’re starting a paper trail that indicates that a person is represented and that they have invoked their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent and their Sixth Amendment right to retain counsel.”

Kentala is part of a fleet of attorneys with First Defense Legal Aid, an organization that operates a 24-hour hotline to provide arrestees with free attorneys at their police interrogations prior to the appointment of a public defender.

She is one of FDLA’s few full-time attorneys, working in a position funded by Notre Dame Law School, her alma mater.

Most of the attorneys are volunteer. All of them — volunteer or otherwise — take six-hour shifts in which they are on-call, waiting for someone to be arrested.

“Having an attorney present ensures that the process is fair,” said FDLA volunteer Roshna B. Keen, who works at Loevy & Loevy.

“It doesn’t mean that everybody at the police station with an attorney is innocent. All it means is that they’re going to be given a fair process because they can invoke their rights.”

A debate about 0.2 percent

On Friday, FDLA celebrates its 20th anniversary by honoring 24 people who uphold the group’s mission.

When the call comes — almost always from someone other than the actual arrestee — the attorney gathers as much information about the person as possible: name, date of birth, arrest location, reason for the arrest and the suspect’s destination.

The attorney then heads to that police station to meet the potential client prior to interrogation.

“You kind of have to make a nuisance of yourself when you’re in the position to have to wait for the person to arrive because they’re in no hurry to get you in front of your client,” Kentala said.

Those first 24 hours after the arrest are crucial, FDLA contends, because access to a phone is often granted after the interrogation, leaving the suspect vulnerable to self-incrimination.

In 2013, the Chicago Police Department made 143,398 arrests, according to data that FDLA acquired from CPD via the Freedom of Information Act.

Only 302 had an attorney at any point while they were in police custody, a total of 0.2 percent.

Arrestees have the right to “a reasonable number of phone calls in a reasonable time,” said FDLA executive director Eliza Solowiej. “That statistic shows how unreasonable it is.”

In efforts to increase the number of arrestees who have counsel upon their arrest, Solowiej is involved in ongoing discussions with CPD regarding signs in police stations that inform people of their rights upon arrest.

At a meeting April 23 that was attended by representatives of CPD, FDLA, the Cook County public defender’s office, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Chicago Coalition for Police Accountability, representatives of the police department agreed to conduct an internal audit by the end of May to ensure that the signs are visible.

“We are moving to get into full compliance,” said Chief Juan Rivera of CPD’s bureau of internal affairs. “We have discovered some signage that needs to be updated and other areas that need additional signage.”

Rivera stressed the importance of arrestees knowing their rights, both to them and to the police whose cases depend on following protocol.

But, he said, the “0.2 percent” figure is misleading.

“Not every arrest is going to necessitate them reading their rights,” Rivera said, citing as an example a traffic violation in which a driver has a warrant out for an arrest.

“We Mirandize them when we are going to question about the incident. Other than that, they just process them.”

He added that when officers wish to question suspects who have invoked their right to an attorney, “the questioning stops.”

But several FDLA attorneys said that too many people still incriminate themselves through false statements and confessions.

“We’ve seen police officers exploit criminal defendants who are low-IQ, who are minors, who are unaware of their rights, who are scared and afraid and want to go home,” said Loevy & Loevy’s Keen.

“In each of these scenarios, you’re going to increase the risk of getting a false confession or, even short of that, just an unfair process if you don’t have an attorney present.”

Rivera said CPD ensures that arrestees have access to a phone call, which they receive once they are in lockup. In his experience, many people use their phone call not to call an attorney but to call family for bond money.

“Most people realize that in most cases, they are going to be bonded out,” he said. “So what do they achieve by bringing an attorney to the facility unless the attorney is bonding them out?”

Solowiej says that a person’s right to an attorney is just that — a right — and should not be a matter of debate.

“They need to make sure that everybody has access to the phone and access to the number of a legal aid provider,” she said.

“Then we’ll know who does and doesn’t want a phone call and legal representation.”

‘I was scared’

Today, Charles Jones is a “Know Your Rights” organizer for FDLA. He leads three to five sessions per week with 10 to 20 people, telling them what they can and cannot do when they are arrested.

In 1991, Jones was a 17-year-old accused of being a lookout during an armed robbery and murder.

Officers came to his home and told his mother and grandmother that he was wanted for questioning. Though they told him he was not under arrest, he was handcuffed to a wall at the police station during his police interview.

The officers, he said, kneed him in his groin and punched him in the ribs.

When he asked to call either his mother or an attorney, he was denied, he said.

“They told me that if I agreed to make a statement that I could go home,” Jones said. “I was 17-years-old. I was scared. I had been at the police station at this time over 30 hours, I believe. I agreed to make the statement.”

His statement — admitting to being the lookout — was false. At the time of the robbery, he was talking to a girl while waiting for a ride home from the soon-to-be perpetrators.

When he saw them running, he assumed someone was chasing them, not that they were fleeing a crime scene.

He ran too. The girl told police.

Jones was convicted of first-degree murder under the theory of accountability and sentenced to 40 years in prison. The only evidence against him was his signed statement.

He served half of his sentence, with three months trimmed for good behavior.

When he was released, he started volunteering for CeaseFire, the group that tries to prevent violence by speaking with would-be offenders before they act.

He met Solowiej at CeaseFire, who came there to recruit.

“At the time when I got arrested, even if I was given a phone call, even if I was allowed to communicate with my family, I could not afford a lawyer at that time,” Jones said.

“Even if I did have a right to a phone call, if I had no one to call, it would not have helped.”

Fewer days in jail

In May 2014, FDLA commissioned a study examining the potential savings to Cook County if arrested people had legal defense within 24 hours of arrest.

Written by a sociology professor and supported by seven organizations including the University of Chicago Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic and the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, the study found that arrestees with access to counsel within 24 hours of arrest spend an average of 62 days in jail.

Those whose first contact with an attorney comes after 24 hours of the arrest spend an average of 141.5 days in jail.

Depending on the data sources, the study found that by providing arrestees with counsel in the first 24 hours, the annual savings to Cook County would range from $12.7 million to $43.9 million.

“We’re glad that the police and the mayor’s office are talking about making sure there is nothing that they are doing that creates that 0.2 percent rate of access to such a basic constitutional right,” Solowiej said.

“We need the system, we need the city, we need the police department to cooperate with this system that is actually very good for their interests, if their interests are public safety and equal justice. I don’t think we are adversaries here.”

FDLA honorees
  • Sonia Anita Antolec, chief administrative law judge and bureau chief for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services’ bureau of administrative hearings
  • Thomas M. Breen, partner at Breen, Pugh Attorneys at Law
  • Martin R. Castro, president and CEO of Castro Synergies LLC
  • Cathy Cohen, Black Youth Project
  • State Sens. Jacqueline Collins, Kwame Y. Raoul, Patricia Van Pelt and Rep. Scott R. Drury
  • Herschella Glenn Conyers, director of the juvenile justice clinic at University of Chicago Law School
  • Alan D. Goldberg, 1st District deputy defender
  • Cheryl Graves and Ora Schub, co-founders of the Community Justice for Youth Institute
  • Jamie Kalven, a journalist
  • Darrius Lightfoot, co-founder of Fearless Leading by the Youth
  • Joey L. Mogul, partner at People’s Law Office
  • Former Gov. Patrick J. Quinn
  • The late Jane Raley, the former co-director of Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions
  • Miguel Rodriguez of the Broader Urban Involvement and Leadership Development Youth Council
  • Jorge Roque, a Little Village community activist
  • Howard Saffold of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League and National Black Police Association
  • Terrence J. Truax, managing partner at Jenner & Block LLP
  • Sladjana Vuckovic, a sole practitioner
  • Standish E. Willis, owner of the Law Office of Standish E. Willis Ltd.
  • Harold J. Winston, Cook County assistant public defender