The Chicago Personal Injury Law Blog

Chicago Police Sued for Violating '48-Hour' Rule; $1M Award Reduced

A $1 million verdict for a deceased man's unlawful detention by Chicago police has been reduced to $250,000, Courthouse News Service reports.

The case dates back to 2008, when Donald Wells caused a fatal crash. Wells was first taken to a hospital, but a few hours later, police threw Wells behind bars. He was left there for two days without medical care.

When police decided to release Wells, they found him in medical distress. Wells was taken to a hospital where he died of multiple organ failure.

Wells' widow sued, and a jury awarded her $1.15 million. Why did she win, and why was her award reduced?

Unless a warrant is obtained ahead of time, the Fourth Amendment entitles a defendant to a probable cause hearing in front of a judge within 48 hours of arrest. If police hold an individual for longer than 48 hours without a hearing, the government has to demonstrate there was some emergency or other good cause for holding the suspect. Otherwise, the suspect's constitutional rights have been violated.

In Wells' case, the results of a comprehensive drug test came back about 48 hours after his arrest, and he was set for release. Unfortunately, he suffered organ failure and eventually died.

The question in the case was, when did the 48-hour clock start? The jury awarded more than $1 million to Wells' widow -- $200,000 for each hour of unlawful confinement in excess of the 48-hour rule, according to Courthouse News.

But police records suggest less than 48 hours passed between Wells' being thrown in jail and the time of his release. Therefore, they shouldn't be liable for violating the 48-hour rule, right?

Not exactly. Though Wells was first taken to a hospital before being taken to jail, two Chicago police officers interrogated him and escorted him at the hospital. Under those circumstances, a jury could find that Wells was, for the sake of the 48-hour clock, in custody.

In addition, though Wells was set for release at 9:30 p.m., he wasn't actually put on an ambulance until about 11 p.m. Though the delay may have been caused by Wells' unstable condition (he was removing his clothing and urinating and defecating in his cell), police apparently failed to show that they had good cause to continue to hold Wells for the time period between 9:30 and 11 p.m.

In the end, Wells' widow's jury award was reduced to $250,000, as a judge found $1 million was "grossly excessive" when compared to similar cases. Wells' widow now has a week to decide whether to accept the reduced award, or face a new trial, Courthouse News reports.

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