Woman can sue police for releasing her in neighborhood where she was attacked, court rules
By David Heinzmann
HICAGO (MCT) When Chicago police released a white, mentally ill California woman in a high-crime black neighborhood, they "might as well have released her into the lions' den at the Brookfield Zoo," a federal judge wrote in a scathing opinion Thursday.
In stark language that legal experts said was constitutionally sound but possibly offensive, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Christina Eilman's family can proceed with a lawsuit claiming police department negligence placed her in danger that led to her sexual assault and catastrophic injury.
The three-judge panel ended more than 18 months of silence on the issue and rejected the city's attempt to stop the case. The lawsuit has had so many delays, the reputed gang member convicted of attacking Eilman before she plummeted from a 7th-floor window was paroled from prison on Wednesday.
The city's appeal had asked the court to dismiss the case against 10 police officers, arguing the police had no responsibility to take care of Eilman, a then-21-year-old former University of California, Los Angeles student who had been arrested after creating a disturbance at Midway Airport in May 2006.
Rather than dwell on the question of police responsibility for providing medical care, the judges said there was evidence of a clearer constitutional violation, that officers had taken Eilman from a relatively safe place Midway Airport and ultimately left her in a dangerous place seven miles away.
In reciting the narrative of what happened that night, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook suggested the police showed little regard for the danger they were putting Eilman in when they released her.
"She was lost, unable to appreciate her danger, and dressed in a manner to attract attention," Easterbrook wrote, noting she was wearing a cutoff top and short shorts. He added, "she is white and well off while the local population is predominantly black and not affluent, causing her to stand out as a person unfamiliar with the environment and thus a potential target for crime."
After she wandered away from the police station, Eilman was lured into the last standing high rise of the Robert Taylor Homes, where she was assaulted before plummeting from a 7th floor window. She suffered massive injuries, including a severe brain injury, shattered pelvis and numerous broken bones. She now lives with her parents near Sacramento and requires around-the-clock care.
Legal experts said the ruling is consistent with well-established federal law.
"Contrary to what most people think, the police don't have a constitutional duty to protect people from harm. But they do have a duty to not put people in harm's way, in other words not to make things worse, and that's what the court found here," said Craig Futterman, a law professor at the University of Chicago Law School, who has led both litigation against the police department as well as research into the department's oversight practices.
"It's a jury call. But there is a constitutional duty, and that's been established for a long time."
David Franklin, a constitutional law scholar at DePaul University College of Law, agreed that the court's ruling pointed out an often misconstrued point about the Constitution.
"Where the police crossed the line from merely not providing help to actively doing harm was by dropping her off near the Robert Taylor Homes wearing skimpy clothes and without her cell phone," Franklin said. "Even though it was a private individual who physically injured her, the police can be held constitutionally liable for leaving her much worse off than they found her."
Franklin also noted that some may find the court's language troubling.
In the opinion, Easterbrook also referenced an earlier 7th circuit opinion noting that throwing someone into a "snake pit" would violate their rights.
"As for the court's potentially offensive analogy between Taylor Homes and a 'lions' den' or a 'snake pit', well, I suppose that's why federal judges have life tenure."
The appellate court took an unusually long time to decide the appeal from city of Chicago lawyers, which was filed in February 2010. Eilman's attorney had filed three motions asking the appellate court to hurry up, and recently he asked the federal trial judge to move forward with the part of the case not on appeal.
The trial judge, Virginia Kendall, was still weighing whether to take the unusual step of splitting the case in two when the appellate ruling came down. The judge had indicated that if she did move forward, the case would go to trial by October.
Eilman's parents, Rick and Kathleen Paine, released a written statement lamenting the lengthy appeal. They have said the physical injuries she endured made her bipolar disorder worse. Because she has no insurance, she is dependent on state aid for medical care.
"Christina's tragedy continues. Six years of litigation without a trial compounds the tragic circumstances here. And, it's time the City's Corporation Counsel's Office stop the incessant delay," they said. "We look forward to a public forum a Federal courtroom for all to see and hear how certain police officers and the City turned away from helping a young disabled person in desperate need."
City officials cited an order from the district court judge asking parties not to discuss the case publicly as a reason to not comment on the ruling from the appellate court.
Pretrial testimony and court filings in the case outlined a series of questionable decisions after Eilman was picked up at Midway. Police ignored a commander's instructions to take her to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, according to sworn testimony in the case, and instead transported her to the Wentworth District lockup in one of the city's highest crime areas. She was held there overnight.
The next evening, after hours of psychotic behavior by Eilman, police released her with no assistance or direction.
In the appellate ruling, Easterbrook wrote that police knew Eilman was suffering a bipolar breakdown and that responsibility for the injuries she suffered has to be decided in a trial. The appellate court eliminated two of the officers from the case, ruling they didn't make decisions that could have deprived Eilman of her rights.
This is the second time recently the 7th Circuit has issued harsh opinions rejecting the city's claims that officers should be immune from lawsuits. Earlier this year the city reached a $6.2 million class-action settlement after a March 2011 ruling written by Judge Richard Posner, one of the judges on the Eilman case, lambasted the city's mass arrest of demonstrators during a 2003 Iraq war protest.
Without comment from the city, it's impossible to say how the appellate ruling will influence the Eilman case. But in the Iraq war protest case, city officials acknowledged that the appellate ruling made it clear they needed to settle.
However, such decisions can lead the city to settle because lawyers now know that if they roll the dice with a jury and don't like the outcome, they could have few options to appeal, Futterman said.
"Should a jury find these officers are liable...that jury verdict is highly likely to stick," he said. "It's a powerful statement of law."
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