by Derek Gilna
Philadelphia is the latest big city in the spotlight after a series of big-money settlements to resolve dozens of police misconduct cases. According to court records, more than 300 lawsuits against narcotics officers with the Philadelphia Police Department have either settled or are in settlement negotiations, and total payouts could approach $24 million for the year.
In recent years, the city has averaged $9 million in payouts for a series of relatively small claims, but three large cases currently pending will likely push that figure much higher. The plaintiffs all have made similar allegations, namely that the narcotics squad fabricated evidence, conducted illegal searches, and committed numerous other civil rights violations.
Dozens of attorneys have coordinated their efforts to bring these cases to conclusion, noted Alan Yatvin, liaison counsel for attorneys representing hundreds of plaintiffs with claims against the narcotics officers. “The real issue in this case was how the city, the police department responded,” Yatvin said, stating that the city took no action despite years of complaints until the lawsuits began to be filed in both state and federal court.
This increase in settlements began after the district attorney’s office threw out 1,000 criminal conviction obtained by the narcotics squad’s questionable methods, with another 240 cases potentially on the chopping block, according to public defender Bradley Bridge. He noted that, given the large number of lawsuits, the city apparently has decided that it is cheaper to settle rather than incur the expense to litigate. Mike Dunn, a law department spokesman, would only comment that the city “has evaluated the facts and circumstances before making a settlement decision.”
The cascade of case dismissals began in 2012, when Bridge filed in excess of 1,000 petitions to challenge convictions obtained by evidence obtained from the work of the narcotics squad. When the prosecutors did not object, dozens of cases began to be dismissed, opening the door for wrongful-conviction lawsuits and eventually, cash settlements for the wrongfully convicted.
Among those wrongfully convicted was Marcia Hintz, a caretaker for mentally-disabled adults, who was wrongfully arrested by the narcotics squad for selling drugs and sentenced to five to ten years in prison. She served three and a half years. She received $625,000. “It’s a lot of time they took from me,” she said. “And you can’t get that back.” Plaintiffs’ lawyers say other, similar cases are still in the trial and settlement pipeline and could eventually result in millions more in payouts.
A city spokesman said the city “has instituted substantive reforms that we believe will, going forward, significantly decrease the likelihood” of the sort of police misconduct that resulted in the large number of lawsuits that have been filed. These reforms include new policies concerning use of force, additional police body cameras, reducing stop-and-frisks, and naming a new executive director to the Police Advisory Commission, a city watchdog agency. Richard Ross, Philadelphia police commissioner, maintained that the police department now has “systems in place to identify problems when they arise and address them.”
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