Federal Suit In Massachusetts Alleges Police Criminally Abused Detainee

File this under: “It Doesn’t Just Happen At Abu Ghraib”

The vast majority of Massachusetts Police Departments do a good job of enforcing the laws that the rest of us are required to obey, as well as observing the laws they are required to obey when it comes to arresting and detaining someone. Most don’t abuse persons who have been arrested and are being held in custody pending bail or arraignment. That being said, it’s not impossible that a few police officers or police departments can break the law, or cross ethical and moral lines when it comes to arrest and detention of criminal suspects.

So in that vein, imagine that you are arrested by a police officer, who seems to think his badge gives him the right to be abusive, verbally or physically. Maybe he or she is in a bad mood; maybe he or she doesn’t like the way you look. Imagine that the officer makes this clear to you through his or her attitude, and the next thing you know, you’re arrested for “disturbing the peace” and “resisting arrest”. At the police station, you’re forcefully stripped of your clothes, and thrown into a cell, naked, along with another prisoner who is clothed, and just so happens to be held for intent to murder. The justification that is given for this at the time, and later, is that you ‘were violent with the arresting officers and thought to be a suicide risk’. You are humiliated, frightened, and psychologically abused.

Sound like a movie at the multiplex? It happened not so long ago in the Lawrence Police Department, and the city of Lawrence is now being sued in U.S. District Court as a result. A Lawrence resident, one Juan A. Figueroa, 29, recently became Exhibit A at the center of this story. Figueroa says that on August 13 2006 he was arrested around 2:40 a.m. after he got a $20 parking ticket for parking the wrong way on Amesbury Street in Lawrence while waiting to pick up a cousin from a nightclub. Figueroa claims that when he complained to two police officers at the scene, Alberto Inostroza and Thadeus Czarnecki, about the parking ticket, they became physically abusive toward him, accused him of disturbing the peace, and arrested him.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston claims that Inostroza slammed Figueroa into the door of the police station and punched him several times in the face, bloodying his nose, according to the eight-page complaint. The complaint also alleges that Czarnecki choked Figueroa when he did not take his ring off for booking. The suit names officers Alberto Inostroza and Thadeus Czarnecki, along with the city of Lawrence as defendants. Figueroa suffered no permanent injuries but has blood on his nose in his mug shot, according to his lawyer, Howard Friedman, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

The officers then stripped Figueroa and placed him in a cell with a clothed detainee who had been charged with assault with intent to murder, according to the complaint. The officers claim this was necessary because Figueroa was “despondent and “suicidal”, and they feared he would use his clothing to possibly hang himself. According to Friedman, Figueroa was not despondent, and the officers’ real goal was to teach him a lesson for allegedly resisting arrest. Friedman said the officers were instead thinking, “We’ll punish him … by making him so humiliated and embarrassed that he’ll be more respectful to the police.” “I’ve never heard of anywhere else in the country where they would strip a prisoner naked and then place them in a cell with a clothed prisoner to prevent them from attempting suicide,” Friedman said. “It would make a person feel embarrassed, humiliated, and vulnerable.”

On a relevant and important note, one of the defendants, Inostroza, was previously disciplined by the Lawrence Police Department five times from 2002 to 2007, for misconduct ranging from using harsh and obscene language to insubordination, according to internal affairs records provided by Figueroa’s lawyer. The Lawrence Police Department confirmed that officer Inostroza had been previously disciplined but said he had never physically abused anyone. Figueroa’s lawyer Friedman said the two misdemeanor charges against Figueroa for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest were later dismissed.

I’ll be watching this case closely. Hopefully, a lot of people will.