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Lawsuits Challenge Fort Wayne’s ‘Law And Order’ Policies Used To Push Out City’s Poor

A series of lawsuits targeting Allen County, Indiana raise serious questions about how the state’s second-largest city, Fort Wayne, treats those in its criminal justice system–particularly those who are black or poor.

The allegations come amid an economic revitalization effort in Fort Wayne’s impoverished downtown area, funded by multi-million dollar public-private partnerships with business interests from within and outside the state. The plans include shopping centers and luxury residencies, as well as a sport arena.

According to data compiled by the Economic Innovation Group, Allen County is one of the most unequal in the state, with high levels of joblessness, vacant housing, and poverty specifically in the Fort Wayne area. Fifty percent of adults living in downtown Fort Wayne are not working,

Behind the slick computer-generated vision for Fort Wayne’s future is a brewing conflict with the downtown community, who endure numerous acts of repression at the hands of law enforcement.

The City of Fort Wayne now faces a lawsuit brought by a homeless man, who alleges his rights were violated when city officials destroyed tents, coats, blankets and other property during sweeps of their camps.

One opinion column published in the local News Sentinel observed, “The city is investing a lot of time, energy, and faith in downtown revitalization. It wants crowds of happy residents and visitors, not hordes of homeless swarming around the edges of the party.”

The Fort Wayne Police Department also faces a class action lawsuit over their alleged automatic seizure of vehicles without warrant or prior notice, which not only violates basic tenants of the law but can set an individual back hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in towing, storage and reclamation fees. It can result in loss of income, employment, or the inability to fulfill other commitments, which leads to further hardship.

The Allen County Sheriff, who is based in Fort Wayne and whose department has effectively banned all communication between pre-trial inmates and their children, faces a separate federal class action lawsuit. It challenges jail policy forbidding anyone under the age of 18 to visit inmates, banning unattended children from the lobby, and outlawing the possession of all photographs or drawings by inmates.

The same Sheriff faces a separate class action lawsuit over the jail’s total lack of a law library and other legal resources, as well as customs that discourage and effectively prohibit inmates from challenging their treatment or confinement.

Yet another class action lawsuit accuses the Allen County public defender system of being wholly deficient and failing to provide indigent inmates facing misdemeanor charges with a meaningful legal defense. That lawsuit alleges the public defender system is underfunded and understaffed, and that attorneys’ caseloads far exceed statutory standards. It also argues officials at all levels have been aware of these deficiencies and are legally obligated to take action to correct them, but they have allowed the problems to persist.

Along with the new lawsuits, Allen County recently settled a class action lawsuit challenging its practice of detaining people for over 48 hours without a probable cause hearing.

Policing The Community

Only 11 percent of Fort Wayne residents are black. Yet, like much of the country, black people in Fort Wayne are far more likely to be arrested than others. One analysis by USA Today found black Fort Wayne residents were arrested at rates nearly four times higher than non-black residents.

A federal class action lawsuit [PDF] filed in December 2015 describes one way the Fort Wayne police target minority communities. Fort Wayne police officers allegedly stop and immediately seize, tow, and impound vehicles “without a warrant, the owners’ consent, or any sufficient legal justification to do so.” Individuals are not given advanced notice or hearing that their vehicle will be impounded, and police officers have denied vehicle owners the opportunity to let someone else drive it home.

The December 2015 lawsuit centers around the case of MarQuayle Martin, a black man who was stopped by Fort Wayne police on June 27, 2014, and arrested. A passenger in the car asked to be permitted to drive the car home, but officers denied the request, and over Martin’s repeated objections and requests for an explanation, the car was impounded. The lawsuit alleges this violated constitutional protections against unlawful searches and seizures.

Martin and others in his situation face substantial financial setbacks for having to pay for the towing and storage of a vehicle, in addition to any other fees related to legal defense.

Another lawsuit [PDF] filed last year highlights the conduct of SWAT teams in the city. Lawrence Cornish sued Fort Wayne and Sheriff David Gladieux after an incident that took place in October 2014.

Cornish, who is a black man, was in his house at six in the morning when a SWAT team executed a search warrant for drugs on his home and the house next door, where his 14 year-old daughter had gone to meet a friend and walk to school.

His daughter was taken from her neighbor’s home by police and “needlessly thrown down on the concrete, told to ‘shut up,’ and placed in zip tie cuffs,” leaving her cut and bruised with a black eye.

Cornish, who was recovering from surgery on a broken leg and ankle, was handcuffed and made to stand outside his home without a jacket or shoes for an hour and a half. He was then allowed to go inside, where he remained in handcuffs for an additional hour and a half.

His other children, a five year-old, three year-old, and a two year-old, were also made to wait outside while officers searched the home. A canine unit was called but found no contraband, and no charges were filed against Cornish.

No Visitation With Children in Fort Wayne

Ronald Ward was arrested in December 2015 and has been detained at the Allen County Jail ever since. He brought a class action lawsuit againt Allen County Sheriff David Gladieux [PDF] to challenge the jail’s policy of prohibiting visitation with children under the age of 18.

All visits at the Allen County Jail are non-contact and take place through telephone headsets and a transparent plastic partition. Conversations are watched and recorded by the central jail command, and an officer is usually present.

Jail policy, as published on the sheriff’s website, states, “Visitors must be at least 18 years of age and have a valid photo ID.” The jail prohibits unattended children from being allowed in the jail lobby, which may make it difficult for incarcerated parents to visit if no one is able to watch their child.

The no visitation policy for children has potentially permanent legal consequences for incarcerated single parents. If a single parent is unable to make bail and there is no one else around to supervise their child while they spend potentially months or even years behind bars before their case is disposed, their children can end up in foster care. That parent’s legal situation and continued absence then places them on a precarious path to legal and permanent separation from their children.

The National Conference of State Legislatures’ 2009 report Children of Incarcerated Parents [PDF] notes that the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) requires states to terminate parental rights on behalf of any child in foster care or who has been abandoned for 15 of the most recent 22 months, with limited exceptions.

Federal law does not specifically require parental rights be terminated for those who are incarcerated, but many states consider incarceration as a factor when granting a termination decree.

NCSL points out state guidelines heavily disfavor conditions related to incarceration that, when combined with it, create a stronger case for terminating parental rights. States typically focus on a parent’s ability to maintain regular contact with their child, participate in their child’s dependency proceedings, and maintain access to services like substance abuse or mental health treatment. All three of these conditions are exceedingly difficult for indigent pretrial inmates and made vastly more difficult when visitation with children is completely denied.

Inmates are also prohibited from possessing pictures, cards, photographs or graphics of any kind, which includes photographs of or drawings made by their children.

The only thing more troubling than the draconian nature of such policies, especially in a jail setting where the majority of inmates have not been convicted of a crime, is their seemingly arbitrary enforcement. In February, one inmate requested a visit with his children, ages five and three, and one greeting card and handmade drawing from them.

A lieutenant responded to the request by writing, “Denied, visitors must be 18 years or older,” and instructed the inmate to read the rules and mail section, which “explains what is allowed and not allowed.”

Another inmate, whose request to have a visit with his young children and girlfriend was summarily dismissed, asked officers to explain why he wasn’t allowed any photos of his family and loved ones. The response was simply, “It is against jail policy to keep pictures of any kind.”

Photographs, drawings, and graphics are considered contraband, and if they are found in an inmate’s possession, the punishment could range from lost good time credit to being transferred to the custody of the Indiana Department of Correction, which means being moved from a county jail to a state prison.

No Meaningful Access To Legal Resources

A separate class action lawsuit [PDF] filed against Sheriff Gladieux alleges “indigent unrepresented inmates in the Allen County Jail are provided no access to a law library, legal research materials, or other professional legal assistance. None.”

Ronald Ward is a lead plaintiff in this lawsuit as well, alongside Patrick Hodgin, Gary Burt, Cortney Dockery, and Brandon Hardy. The action seeks to bring relief to all inmates, who do not have meaningful access legal resources under the Sheriff’s current policies.

Allen County officials have openly acknowledged the total lack of legal resources at the jail in response to inmate inquiries and complaints. In addition to the absence of a law library, there is no professional legal assistance for inmates, no law-related programs or research materials, and no legal aids.

The extent of Allen County’s legal services is best described as follows:

If the inmate has money available to him at the Allen County Jail and, if the inmate from his personal knowledge can provide a citation to case law or statutory law, and Allen County Jail officer untrained as an attorney, paralegal, legal assistant, or law student will enter the provided legal citation into an online search engine and, for a sum of money, will print the legal material for the requesting inmate.

This arrangement makes it difficult for inmates with no prior legal education and little or no money to file complaints in court.

The lawsuit alleges the jail has failed to respond to requests for legal assistance, other times referring inmates to “an attorney who does not represent [inmates] in their civil rights or habeas corpus cases and who jail officers have no reasonable basis to believe will do so.”

Patrick Hodgin, who was incarcerated at the Allen County Jail in June 2015 and is awaiting sentencing on one charge of unlawfully disposing of a controlled substance, was attacked by his cellmate less than one hour after he pled with officers to move him to another cell for fear of being beaten. He was found unconscious and nearly naked in a shower, suffering from head trauma, multiple fractures to his face, and a partial, possibly permanent loss of hearing and smell.

When Hodgin complained about his treatment, officers told him “he should take responsibility for his own actions rather than blaming others.” Hodgin wanted to file a civil rights action against the officers but was unable to do so because there are no legal resources or assistance at the jail.

Gary Burt was incarcerated in September 2015 and awaits sentencing for violating his probation. He believes he was wrongfully convicted on his underlying sentence and wishes to challenge his incarceration as unlawful. He’s unable to do so without legal resources at the Allen County Jail.

Cortney Dockery was arrested in December 2015 and remains incarcerated at the Allen County Jail, awaiting trial on firearms and criminal recklessness charges. He wishes to challenge his bail, set at $110,000, as excessive and in violation of state and federal law but lacks resources for a challenge.

Brandon Hardy, incarcerated in October 2015 and awaiting trial for drug possession, wants to challenge his search by police officers without probably cause, as a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, but lacks resources.

Ronald Ward wishes to challenge the conditions of confinement at Allen County Jail, which he describes as including “insect infestations, forced sleeping on uncleaned mats on floors near open toilets, and dangerously unsanitary preparation of meals.” He is unable to do so with the total lack of legal resources and assistance at the jail.

The lawsuit argues inmates will continue to face the risk that their rights will be violated without recourse so long as the jail is allowed to operate without legal resources.

No Access To Meaningful Legal Representation

A federal class action lawsuit [PDF] brought by inmates Calvin Wilson and David Blume against Allen County and the county council, the board of commissioners, and the public defender board, seeks to improve the quality of legal defense provided to those charged with misdemeanor offenses.

“Despite knowing of the deficiencies of their public defense system for at least ten years,” the complaint argues officials at all levels “have failed to take reasonable steps to protect the constitutional rights of those affected.”

Allen County public defenders are assigned to roughly a third to a quarter of the 5,800 criminal misdemeanor cases brought each year. But because the public defenders office is severely under funded and understaffed, there is very little funding and no full-time attorneys for misdemeanor criminal clients. The office only spends between one to three percent of its budget on salaries for misdemeanor attorneys. Instead, the public defender’s office contracts with three, sometimes four, part-time attorneys to handle the 1,500 misdemeanor cases it is assigned each year.

These part-time attorneys are paid between $8,000 and $24,000 annually to handle hundreds of public defense cases on top of hundreds of other cases in their private practices. Their caseloads are between double and quadruple the maximum 150 cases allowed by statutory standards.

The lawsuit argues the county’s public defenders do not adequately research their clients’ cases and do not meet with their clients aside from a few moments inside the courthouse. They allege the attorneys devote less than an hour in whole to the defense of each person’s case.

The complaint further alleges attorneys rarely seek dismissal of charges, take cases to trial, or sufficiently investigate the charges. Their representation “generally consists of a brief attorney-client meeting in the courthouse to recommend that the client accept the plea agreement offered by a prosecutor.”

One Allen County public defender appeared on more than 1,950 cases between January 1, 2013 and August 1, 2015–or about 98 new cases each month.

Calvin Wilson was charged with Class A misdemeanor battery, which carries a year of imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. He was assigned an attorney from the Public Defender’s office but had no contact with the attorney during or prior to the hearing on his charge. They only spoke after, “when, because [Wilson’s attorney] had not contacted or spoken for him, the court nearly issued a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear at the hearing.”

When Wilson met with the lawyer a week later, he asked for a copy of the probable cause affidavit in his case so he could learn the charges against him. The attorney refused and told him that he could get a copy from the court.

The lawsuit alleges the attorney filed no motions (other than requests for continuance), never met with Wilson aside from brief courthouse meetings, and failed to meaningfully investigate the charges against him, advise him of his rights or provide him with adequate counsel.

Blume had a similar experience facing the same misdemeanor with a public defender. Blume did not meet his public defender for the first time until about three months after he was charged.

Their first conversation occurred within the courthouse and was held “without his pubic defender having meaningfully investigated the factors or law” concerning Blume’s case. The attorney instructed Blume to accept a plea deal, but he refused and maintained his innocence.

Like Wilson’s case, Blume’s public defender has filed no significant motions, has not met with his client outside the courthouse, and has not meaningfully investigated his case.

Indiana public defenders are to meet a specific legal standard, and they are not to carry excessive caseloads that would “interfere with the rendering of quality representation or lead to the breach of professional obligations.”

The lawsuit contends the attorneys have never notified the County Public Defender that their caseloads have become excessive, who in-turn never notified the county judges even though they knew of the problem. It argues the defendants—from county officials who failed to appropriate enough funds to the public defenders office, all the way through to the attorneys faced with an impossible number of cases to defend—knew they were failing to assist poor individuals facing misdemeanor charges and did nothing.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.