City hit with federal lawsuit over allegations of police abuse at Homan Square facility

Jonathan Bilyk Mar. 24, 2015, 8:35am

Claiming the city either hid the use of a secret police detention and interrogation facility– or, like the “proverbial ostrich,” opted to bury its head in the sand– a Chicago civil rights lawyer has filed suit on behalf of three Hispanic men who assert Chicago Police essentially abducted them and illegally held, interrogated and threatened to frame them if they told anyone about the facility or their treatment at the hands of police within.

On March 19, attorney Blake Horwitz filed suit in Chicago's federal court on behalf of plaintiffs John Vergara, Carlos Ruiz and Jose Garcia against the City of Chicago and at least three police officers, claiming the officers violated the constitutional rights of the three men during their detention about four years ago.

The case comes on the heels of reports published in the British newspaper, the Guardian, alleging that Chicago Police use its Homan Square warehouse as an illegal detention and interrogation facility, likening it to a “CIA ‘black site’ facility.”

The series of articles regarding Homan Square began in late February, and have included the stories of Vergara, Ruiz and Garcia to illustrate what the reports allege is a pattern of using harsh treatment to threaten and coerce otherwise innocent people, all while holding them secretly for long periods of time, denying them the opportunities to notify family or a lawyer about their whereabouts and treatment at the hands of police.

Police have denied wrongdoing at the Homan Square facility, saying in published reports the Guardian’s articles were “inaccurate and misleading” and asserting detainees taken to Homan Square were properly arrested and questioned within the limits of the law.

According to the complaint, police officers, “armed” and “wearing masks,” burst into a Puerto Rican grocery and deli store in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on Sept. 29, 2011, ordering Vergara, Ruiz and Garcia to the ground. The three men allege they were then handcuffed, searched and their personal belongings seized.

From there, the suit asserts officers took the three men to the Homan Square facility, despite police allegedly having no warrants or probable cause for their arrest.

At Homan Square, the men claim they were handcuffed to a bar on a cell wall, and were denied food, water, medicine, access to a restroom and the chance to notify anyone of their whereabouts for hours while officers questioned and threatened them.

The complaint contends the officers attempted to “coerce false confessions” from the men and threatened to charge them with crimes.

At one point, according to the suit, Vergara asked to speak with Horwitz, a lawyer. The complaint alleges officers, in response, threatened to “pin a case” on Vergara and “everybody else in here” if he talked to the lawyer.

After securing promises from the men not to talk about the facility or their treatment there, the suit claims the officers returned the men to the Humboldt Park grocery store where they had been first detained.

In the weeks and months following, the complaint alleges officers would harass the men, driving past the store “on a daily basis,” shouting and pointing at the men to ensure the men knew the officers “were watching.”

Because of those threats, Horwitz said the trio of plaintiffs waited four years to bring the action against the officers and the city.

The suit includes counts accusing the officers of false arrest, conspiracy, illegal search and excessive force. It also alleges the abuses were “effectuated” by the city, which either had known or should have known since at least 2006 of the Homan Square facility, its use by police and the treatment of those detained within.

"The city’s conduct … has gone unchecked and has been allowed to exist in the city of Chicago for a significant period of time, so much so, that police officers … recognize that they will not be punished for committing said acts,” the complaint asserts.

The plaintiffs have demanded a jury trial and an unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Court records show an initial status hearing has been set for May 27.

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