Rare legal settlements demand officers pay too
City usually pays when a police misconduct suit is settled – but some defendants want cops punished
By: Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune: April 15th, 2012
To settle a wrongful-conviction lawsuit against the Chicago police, the city recently agreed to pay Harold Hill $1.25 million.
What never became public was that, to reach the settlement late last year, two detectives in the case that sent Hill to prison for 12 years for a rape and murder he insisted he did not commit agreed to contribute, too. It was not much next to the total settlement — $7,500 each — yet it apparently meant something to Hill.
The city of Chicago, like other municipalities, pays judgments and settlements when the conduct of police officers goes wrong. But in rare cases, said attorneys on both sides of the issue, people who were wronged demand money from the officers, too. It is an effort to balance the scales, a way to make the perpetrator of the pain experience something of what the purported victim went through, even if it is a nominal amount.
“It’s an expression of how a plaintiff feels about a case and wanting punishment to flow directly to the police officers,” said attorney Terry Ekl, who has sued police officers but is not involved in this case. “But very rarely does that actually translate into someone going after the police officer’s personal assets.”
That is important to victims, experts said, because in most cases the settlement check is written by a faceless municipality or its insurance company. There is no sense for victims that justice has been achieved; rather, it seems the perpetrators have escaped punishment.
Michael Seng, a professor at The John Marshall Law School, said making the officer pay also serves as a deterrent to other officers.
“It stings. It hurts them. It takes some money out of the bank,” Seng said. “It sets an example for other officers.”
The officers may agree to pay in a settlement because they see going to trial as too much of a risk. If a jury assesses punitive damages above what are called compensatory damages — the damages to compensate plaintiffs for their loss — officers must pay those punitive damages out of their own pocket. And punitive damages can run into millions of dollars; municipalities cannot pay them for their employees.
Such settlements are so unusual that attorney Flint Taylor, a noted civil rights lawyer in Chicago who has sued the Police Department many times, said he had never had a case where the police officers paid money as part of a lawsuit settlement. He said that was, in large part, because the city’s Law Department and the lawyers it hires from private practice to defend these lawsuits work hard to protect officers.
“If the city turned around and agreed to have the cops pay, too,” Taylor said, “then they might not be able to settle their cases.”
Of course, it also is because municipalities such as the city of Chicago have deep pockets. Police officers often are of modest means, so going after their assets might not achieve much, and certainly not as much as a plaintiff in a lawsuit would be able to get from a municipality.
“Most of the folks who have been victimized care more about the accountability,” said Craig Futterman, a professor at the University of Chicago’s law school. “They want an acknowledgment that the police did them wrong or hurt them. That’s why some of these settlements are for such small amounts.”
Roderick Drew, spokesman for the city’s Law Department, agreed that such settlements are rare. He said city attorneys consider the demands from plaintiffs on a case-by-case basis. In this case, he said, Hill and his attorneys insisted that the officers pay out of their own pockets.
The two veteran detectives, identified in court documents as Kenneth Boudreau and John Halloran, had until last week to pay Hill.
Boudreau declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement. Halloran could not be reached.
Neither detective admitted wrongdoing in the settlement.
“It’s the symbolism that makes it attractive to a plaintiff,” said Russell Ainsworth, who represented Hill but because of the confidentiality agreement also could not discuss details of the case. “To get money from the officer who wronged them means something to some people.”
Ainsworth said the firm he works at, Loevy & Loevy, sees trying to make officers pay from their own pocket as “a policy position.”
“It’s what we believe in. It’s an attempt at restorative justice,” said Ainsworth, who called such settlements extremely rare at the firm. “It really has an intrinsic value that goes above and beyond the dollar amount, having a police officer writing a check out of his own account. There’s a feeling of justice there for the client, and that’s important. It’s also an extra psychological piece to help make the client satisfied.”
Taylor said he liked the idea of making police officers pay to settle lawsuits and, like Seng, said it could have some deterrent effect.
“The cop should somehow be held responsible,” Taylor said. “As a principle, I agree with that.”
That was what Shaun Meesak believed. Meesak and two friends had come out of a North Side bar early one morning in January 2007, got in their car and started to drive home when they said another car ran a stop sign and almost struck their car. One of his friends yelled and made an obscene gesture, which prompted the men in the car to approach them. As it turned out, those men were plainclothes police officers.
Meesak and his friends said the officers beat them, choked Meesak after he had been handcuffed, then charged them with various crimes. Meesak and his friends pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct out of fear that, if they went to trial, they would end up with a jail sentence.
The three men as well a fourth friend at the scene filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging the officers had violated their rights by beating them and bringing false charges against them. When the city settled the lawsuit in 2009 for $225,000, the agreement called for the police officers to chip in, too. Each of the five officers named in the lawsuit agreed to pay $1,250 to each of the four plaintiffs, meaning each officer paid $5,000 out of his own pocket.
“It makes them accountable essentially,” said Meesak, who is 32 and works in the construction equipment industry. “I don’t know how much damage it does to their pocketbook or their savings account, but it holds them accountable for their actions. It’s not just the city paying.”
Meesak said he would have liked an apology but knew he was not going to get one. His work sometimes takes him into the city, and that makes him anxious, though not as much as it used to. He said an admission of wrongdoing and an apology would have lessened the impact of what happened.
But the settlement agreements in the Hill and Meesak cases, as well as in others, make clear that there is no admission of wrongdoing.
Hill was one of three men arrested in the 1990 murder of Kathy Morgan. It was a problematic case from the very beginning.
Hill, Dan Young Jr. and Peter Williams were charged with the murder of Morgan, whose body was found in an abandoned building on the South Side. Close to 18 months later, Hill was arrested on an unrelated robbery charge. During questioning, he confessed to the murder and implicated Young and Williams. In time, Young and Williams also confessed and implicated the other two.
Williams later realized he was in Cook County Jail on a drug charge when the killing took place. Although the charges against Williams were dropped, prosecutors took the other two to trial and won convictions. The charges against Hill and Young were dropped in February 2005 after DNA tests cleared them.
As for Hill, he will not be able to spend his money in the outside world — at least not for some time. After he was cleared of the Morgan murder and released from prison, he was arrested on unrelated armed robbery charges and was convicted. He is serving a 27-year prison sentence.