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Cops Have to Answer for Handling of Dead Suspect

(CN) - Police questioning may have caused the death of a man who had just crashed his truck into a Chicago train station and killed two people, a federal judge ruled.

Donald Wells drove his big rig through a bus stop and into the L-train's Cermak-Chinatown Red Line station on April, 25, 2008, killing two women and injuring 20 people.

After firefighters removed Wells from the cab of his truck, paramedics brought him to the hospital. About 4 1/2 hours later, however, officers took Wells to the police station for questioning.

Wells remained at the station for two days while police "investigated the collision and considered whether to charge Wells with a felony such as aggravated reckless driving or reckless homicide," according to the judgment. Officers ultimately issued Wells a traffic citation, but the investigation into his death is ongoing.

When Officer John Farrell went to inform Wells he was being released, he found Wells naked in his cell. Concerned that Wells would need medical attention and had nowhere to go once released, Farrell left Wells in the cell and tried to locate contact information for one of Wells' family members.

Farrell testified that he "did not remember any other prisoner who had ever been in less of a hurry to leave," according to the court.

The officer sent Wells to the hospital when he returned to the cell and found that Wells had taken his clothes off again and had been urinating and defecating on himself.

"Wells remained hospitalized for six weeks, suffering from pneumonia, renal failure, and failure of multiple organs, and was never discharged before his death," according to the court.

His widow, Ann Wells, then sued Chicago and 25 police officers and employees.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly refused to dismiss the unlawful detention claim last week, but did toss a claim related to denial of medical attention.

Ann Wells claimed that the police did not have probable cause to hold Wells for so long. A blood test had allegedly cleared Wells of drunken driving, and one witness "said that Wells was slumped over behind the wheel, lying down, and not looking up."

But these claims did not impress Kennelly, who said "a reasonable jury could find that probable cause had not dissipated" on the charge of reckless driving.

The widow also presented evidence that a 48-hour hold without cause is a Chicago policy or that police officers thought that was its policy.

Police commander Joseph Salemme testified that "we don't hold people in custody just to hold them in custody," but he could not identify a specific policy concerning the release of prisoners before 48 hours had passed.

Kennelly ruled that Chicago will not have to face claims about "a policy of holding prisoners more than 48 hours," but Ann Wells can fight the alleged "policy of holding prisoners unlawfully for less than 48 hours."

"Plaintiff's inability to provide evidence from which a reasonable jury could find a widespread practice of denying medical treatment to prisoners is fatal to her claim against the city," he concluded.

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