A Houston, criminal defense lawyer alleged over the weekend that prisoners rounded up in the dragnet that followed the Waco Massacre 15 days ago are being coerced into signing a statement that local police “had the right to arrest the inmate and that he/she will not file a lawsuit against McLennan County and/or the City of Waco.”
In a press release issued on May 31, lawyer Paul Looney said he had learned that “an attorney representing at least one of the detainees had been offered…bond reductions” in exchange for signing the statement. The press release didn’t identify the attorney or the defendant.
The Clendennen Suit
Last Friday, a prisoner in the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco named Matthew Alan Clendennen filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Waco, McLennan County, Texas, a Waco cop named Manuel Chavez and 20 additional, unnamed law enforcement officers. The suit complains that Clendennen’s arrest and imprisonment are unconstitutional and seeks unspecified actual and exemplary damages. Clendennen and at least 100 other defendants were arrested and charged using a photocopied, generic complaint. The suit also alleges that the city and county have used their authority to steal more than 100 vehicles. Clendennen is represented by Dallas attorney F. Clinton Broden.
In general, successful claims of false arrest and detention result in compensation of $2,500 to $5,000 per hour of bogus detainment. In one case titled Martinez v. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey the complainant was awarded $160,000 after spending 19 hours in custody. The award was upheld by the Federal Second Circuit.
As this is being written, Clendennen’s false arrest claim alone would typically be satisfied with a judgment against the defendants of about $2 million. Considering that Waco police arrested and detained at least 170 people without what Clendennen’s suit calls “individualized probable cause;” and without considering the egregiousness with which local authorities trampled on the Constitution and the exemplary damages that might result from that; or the legal fees that would result from multiple civil rights lawsuits, Waco, McLennan County and the state of Texas are now faced with a potential liability of about $340 million.
In hindsight, in a news season that has been dominated by stories about and public backlash against police excess, maybe the Waco Police Department should have taken a moment to consider how its self-congratulatory braying during the last two weeks might be viewed by Federal District Judges.
Waco’s defense against a possible flurry of civil rights law suits is probably not enhanced by the coercion Looney alleges. It is also not likely that any agreement by an illegally imprisoned defendant to not sue Waco in order to get out of jail amounts to legal “acceptance” under contract law in most first world countries. Under federal criminal law, the alleged offer can be construed as a racketeering act. Although it is unusual, it is not unprecedented for a police department and its members to be prosecuted under the racketeering statute. In 1984, the Key West, Florida police department was prosecuted under RICO and an unsuccessful RICO case was brought against the Los Angeles Police Department in 2000.
In his release, Looney states, ““It appears the public defenders office in McLennan County is involved in this scurrilous activity. I’ve never seen anything like the lawlessness that the authorities have perpetrated on these people and now to add insult to injury they are trying to cover their own tracks in exchange for bond.” If his statement is true, the public defenders office would be part of the same racketeering conspiracy.
Looney’s law partner, Clay S. Conrad said, “They know these people aren’t dangerous or they wouldn’t be offering the bond reductions and they know the police and the D.A.’s office have violated the law and now they are trying to hold people hostage until they agree to waive their rights. It’s unconscionable.”