In February 2020, Chicago police officers arrested CTA supervisor Martesa Lee after she refused to withdraw a complaint against one of the officers.
A body-cam video posted by the Chicago Tribune shows the encounter.
On February 4, a CTA dispatcher assigned Martesa to be the “Person In Charge” at the scene of a stabbing on the CTA’s Jackson Street Red Line subway platform. When Martesa arrived on the platform, she saw a street performer who was badly injured from the stabbing.
As police arrived, they did not cordon the entire area off with yellow tape. Dozens of people, including Martesa, walked through the unmarked crime scene.
One of the officers, Officer Raymond Haran, told Matesa to leave the scene, physically touching her while doing so. Martesa accused Officer Haran of pushing her while he accused her of not following his orders. The argument lasted 31 seconds before they went their separate ways.
Approximately seven minutes later, Martesa approached Sergeant William Spyker, who was also at the scene. She complained to Sgt. Spyker that one of his officers had grabbed and pushed her.
Sgt. Spyker responded by telling Martesa, “If he tells me that you were obstructing the crime scene, we’re going to arrest you.”
Martesa, in disbelief, countered, “You aren’t going to arrest me for doing my job.”
To which Spyker said, “Yes, we are. That’s the way it’s gonna go if you want to complain.”
In short, Sgt. Spyker gave Martesa Lee an ultimatum: drop her complaint, or face arrest.
“Is it worth it to you?” Sgt. Spyker asked Martesa.
When Martesa refused to drop her complaint, the sergeant honored his word and ordered Officer Haran to arrest her on the spot, which he did.
Martesa stood on the subway platform, handcuffed, for nearly 10 minutes, in front of CTA customers and her colleagues, while her manager pleaded with the officers to release her. Perhaps realizing their mistake, the police released her and did not press charges. Later, Martesa saw herself on television, in handcuffs, making it appear that she was the stabbing suspect.
After reviewing the video evidence of the encounter, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) recommended that the Chicago Police Department suspend Sgt. Spyker pending its investigation.
COPA’s Chief Administrator, Sydney Roberts, stated:
“Strong evidence suggests that Sgt. Spyker’s handling of Lee’s complaint may have been in violation of Department policy regarding the treatment of received complaints of misconduct. This same evidence also suggests that Sgt. Spyker threatened Lee with arrest if she insisted on advancing her complaint, and that Sgt. Spyker ultimately carried through with his threat of arrest.”
The Law Office of Jordan Marsh took on Martesa’s case. The firm filed a civil complaint against the City of Chicago and Officers Haran and Spyker on behalf of Martesa.
In the complaint, Martesa alleges excessive force, false arrest, unlawful detention, and a violation of her first amendment rights against the officers. She also alleges battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the City of Chicago.
Currently, the case is pending in Federal District Court in the Northern District of Illinois.
Citizens have numerous protections in place to help prevent retaliatory arrests and other forms of police misconduct. One of the legal system’s main roles is enforcing these protections when they are violated or otherwise ignored.
For example, the Constitution prohibits officers from arresting citizens without probable cause based on the specific facts and circumstances leading to the arrest.
A mere hunch or a suspicion, or — as it seems in Martesa’s case — a desire to discourage complaints against the police — does not establish probable cause to arrest.
If an officer arrests someone without cause, that person can file a claim for false arrest. And if an officer arrests someone in retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights — such as the right to complain about police misconduct — that may also be a basis for a civil rights claim.
If that person’s claim is successful, it sends a signal to the police system, reinforcing the rights of everyone, and showing police officers what is not allowed for purposes of future conduct.
As COPA’s Chief Administrator stated:
“A civilian’s ability to lodge a complaint of police misconduct is of paramount importance in the Department’s efforts to rebuild trust with the community. To have a sergeant of police not only ignore Ms. Lee’s request to file a complaint, but to respond by using his arrest powers in a seemingly punitive and retaliatory manner demonstrates a profound lack of judgment and brings significant discredit to the Department.”
Without the ability to complain about wrongful or otherwise inappropriate conduct by police, misconduct would run rampant.
When the law is clear about what conduct is allowed — and when officers follow that law — it builds community trust and strengthens police-community relations, which increases public safety.
But when the police disregard those clearly-established laws, the opposite can happen. As the Chicago Tribune noted in an article about this case:
“Amid high-profile deaths at the hands of police officers around the country, the incident exemplifies the kind of small, typically undocumented interactions that can corrode a community’s trust in the Chicago Police Department.”
Over time, successful lawsuits establish precedents for future police conduct. Lawsuits clarify what is and is not allowed. It is then up to the police to follow the law.
We can only hope that Martesa’s case will serve as a signal to law enforcement that retaliatory arrests for the “crime” of complaining about police misconduct are unacceptable and unlawful.
If you think you might have been a victim of a false arrest, an unreasonable search, or other civil rights violation, contact Chicago civil rights attorney Jordan Marsh for a free consultation at (224) 220-9000, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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