When police and prosecutors put away Joel Fuentes for murder in 2001, the conviction had a staggering, unintended cost: $1 million, the Detroit News reports. That’s what the city paid to settle five civil rights lawsuits filed by witnesses temporarily jailed during the manhunt for Fuentes and and a fellow suspect. One of the beneficiaries was Fuentes’ wife, who was held for five days and got a $550,000 settlement.
Federal consent decrees announced last month banned the longstanding Detroit police policy of rounding up and jailing uncooperative homicide witnesses. But the city’s hangover from the practice is far from over. More than 100 homicide witnesses have sued the city, claiming police violated their civil rights by detaining them to gather evidence and statements. More than 30 cases have been settled, with the city doling out $3.4 million. And the city, already in dire financial straits, may be on the hook for millions more, the News says. A federal judge is due to rule on whether lawyers representing two dozen plaintiffs in other suits can have class action status — potentially adding 1,000 more claimants and exposing the city to millions more in payouts.
Cops and their defenders say this cottage industry of legal claims allows witnesses to profit from murder. “You have people who are in a unique position to take advantage of the system when police are desperate to get killers off the street. People aren’t usually anxious to cooperate. Now you can be not anxious to cooperate and profit greatly,” says defense attorney David Zacks.