Fear of Police Threats Justify Delayed Lawsuit

     CHICAGO (CN) – Threats by police to frame a man and get him fired if he reported their invasion of his home justify his failure to file a timely lawsuit, a federal judge ruled.
     In May 2002, four Chicago police officers – Jerome Finnigan, Keith Fuellin, Paul Burg and Jennifer Przybylo – forced their way into Robert Cook’s home, threw him to the ground and hit him. One of the officers had a gun drawn.
     Nearly a decade later, Finnigan was sentenced to 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from suspected drug dealers, and plotting to have another officer killed.
     Back in 2002, however, the four officers beat Cook and threatened to take his girlfriend’s children away if his girlfriend, Denise Gerloski, called 911.
     For the next hour, the officers continued to physically abuse Cook, a Chicago firefighter, and told him they could get him fired or worse by planting something in his car.
     As they left the house, the officers bent Cook over the front railing as a final warning, and reaffirmed their threats.
     Cook said he called the police department the next day to report the incident. The defendants claim that he waited several days before calling.
     Sgt. Ken Abels was assigned to investigate Cook’s complaint, and began by calling Cook a liar. He then threatened to get Cook fired if he did not drop the complaint, and made other threats similar to those the officers made when they invaded his home.
     Abels closed the investigation in June, finding Cook’s allegations “unfounded.”
     Four years later, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office contacted Cook as part of an investigation into corruption in the Chicago police department.
     He eventually agreed to meet with investigators, but brought bail money with him in case he was arrested on the spot.
     Finnigan and other officers were arrested later that year and charged with felonies, including home invasion, armed violence, aggravated kidnapping, and drug related crimes.
     U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman ruled last week that Chicago and the individual officers cannot dismiss Cook’s civil rights claims as untimely, even though he waited four years after the incident to file suit, because he reasonably believed the officers could make good on their threats.
     “Threatening a victim of police brutally to ensure he does not reveal what transpired is clearly wrongful,” Gettleman wrote. “When such threats are made with the clear intent to prevent a plaintiff from seeking redress for the underlying wrong, the threats constitute active steps distinct from that underlying wrong.”
     Cook’s decision not to file a lawsuit supports his claim that the officers’ actions caused him to fear for his life, the court found. The evidence may show that Cook believed the officers could have him fired, or frame him for a crime, according to the judgment.
     “For example, in plaintiff’s first meeting with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, he was so afraid that he actually brought bail money in case he was walking into a setup,” Gettleman wrote.
     The judge also found it “ridiculous” to credit the claim by the defendants that, if Cook actually believed the officers’ threats, he would have moved.
     “If crooked cops threaten an individual’s livelihood and safety, it is not clear that changing his address would offer much protection,” Gettleman said. “Even if this were the case, it would be unjust and unreasonable to require that a victim of police misconduct uproot his life or be barred from raising equitable estoppel.”

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