Panhandlers who sued the city of Chicago failed to make the case that police detentions violated their constitutional freedom from unreasonable seizures, a federal judge held.
In a written opinion this week, U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber granted summary judgment in favor of the city on the Fourth Amendment claim brought by seven panhandlers.
The panhandlers maintain police stopped them on the street anywhere from one to 20 times during the two-year period beginning February 2011 and then held on to their identification documents longer than needed to complete so-called “contact cards.”
Police use the cards — initially a printed document, now a digitized record — to log encounters with civilians that do not lead to an arrest.
Information placed on the card includes the person’s name, address, gender, race, employer, driver’s license number and Social Security number.
Other information includes the person’s height, weight, scars, tattoos, hair and eye color and possible gang identification.
The panhandlers maintain police prolonged these stops in violation of the Fourth Amendment by retaining their driver’s license or government-issued identification after completing the contact card in order to run a name check.
A name check — also called a warrant check — consists of a search of government databases for driver’s license records, outstanding arrest warrants, investigative alerts, criminal histories, missing person requests and other information related to an individual.
The panhandlers originally named 12 police officers as well as the city as defendants in their suit.
But they dropped the individual defendants and pursued their Fourth Amendment claim against the city under Monell v. Department of Social Services of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).
Under Monell, the city would be liable for any constitutional violation that stemmed from an express policy or widespread, accepted practice followed by police.
In granting summary judgment in favor of the city, Leinenweber wrote the panhandlers failed to prove the existence of a widespread practice on the police force of conducting warrant checks that unreasonably prolonged encounters with civilians.
The panhandlers did not contend the police were engaging in harassment by checking for warrants, Leinenweber wrote.
He wrote the panhandlers also did not testify the officers lacked reasonable suspicion of illegal activity — for example, a violation of a Chicago ordinance barring aggressive panhandling — to justify the warrant checks.
In any event, Leinenweber wrote, “a warrant check by itself cannot be equated with an unconstitutional seizure.”
The lead attorneys for the plaintiffs are Adele D. Nicholas of the Law Office of Adele D. Nicholas and sole practitioner Mark G. Weinberg.
“We are disappointed, and will certainly appeal the decision,” Weinberg said in a statement. “The case involves fundamental Fourth Amendment principles, and we will pursue the matter to its end.”
The city is represented by attorneys who include Allan T. Slagel and Barton J. O’Brien, both of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.
A spokesman for the Law Department did not have an immediate comment.
Leinenweber issued his opinion Monday in John Hall, et al. v. City of Chicago, No. 12 C 6834.