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An Innocent Woman’s 49 Day Detention

It all started back in 1993, when Latasha Eatman, then barely an adult, was arrested on a low level marijuana charge. She was ordered to perform community service for the offense. Eatman repeatedly attempted to complete the community service as ordered. The agency where she was assigned could not accommodate her schedule. Ms. Eatman reappeared before the court and provided an explanation as to why she hadn’t completed her community service. The judge recognized the failure to complete the community service was not for a lack of trying. The judge terminated her probation without Ms. Eatman completing the work.

A Clerical Error

Somehow, in 1994, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Ms. Eatman, for failing to complete her community service. This was the first error, in that the court had already closed the file. Of note, this warrant stayed active for 22 years. During this time, Ms. Eatman must have had absolutely no contact with law enforcement officers. If she had, the warrant would have been discovered at that time.

A Raid Looking for Tax Evasion

Ms. Eatman has been gainfully employed at the same store for 15 years. She is not the owner of the store, nor was she suspected of any criminal activity. Chicago police officers arrived at the store on October 14, 2016. They were searching to determine whether the store was selling cigarettes without taxing them. Ms. Eatman happened to be working at the time. The police apparently felt there was some evidence that the store was indeed selling cigarettes without proper taxation, and they wrote the store a ticket for that offense. They also, for reasons unclear, took the liberty of running Ms. Eatman’s name through their database. At that time, they discovered the 22 year old warrant for her arrest and took her into custody.

A Callous System of “Justice”

In April of 2015, the Cook County state’s attorney’s office announced it was changing the way it handled low level drug offenses. “If someone is caught with a misdemeanor amount of marijuana, the state’s attorney’s office will no longer prosecute that case,” said Sally Daly, office spokeswoman. One might think this would bode well for Ms. Eatman. One would be wrong.
justiceAs a preliminary matter, Ms. Eatman was booked into the Cook County Jail with no bail set. This was not an uncommon practice in the ’90s when issuing warrants. The goal was to get the attention of the offender, by keeping them in custody until they could be seen before a judge. For reasons unclear, it took Cook County ten days to bring Ms. Eatman before a judge. At that time, one might have expected the Cook County Attorney’s Office to simply dismiss the case altogether, in light of their current drug policy. That did not happen. Ms. Eatman explained to the judge that the warrant was a mistake and that the judge had dismissed the community service requirement 20 years earlier. The judge had several options. He could have put her case at the end of his calendar and asked someone for court services to pull the file. He could have given her a court date in the future, to give her attorney the opportunity to locate the relevant information. He could have dismissed the case on his own motion. He did none of these things. Instead, he threatened to send her to prison and denied bond. This on a citizen that has been indisputably law abiding for the past 22 years. On a case with so little value that the prosecutor’s office wouldn’t pursue it today. The judge set her case for another hearing date at some time in the future.

Cook County Sheriff’s Office Audit

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Lucky for Ms. Eatman, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office performed an audit during her time at the jail. They were reviewing the cases of all women being held for the first time. Upon learning of Ms. Eatman’s situation, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office took on the unusual role of advocate. They contacted the Cook County Attorney’s Office and “raised holy hell.”By this time, Ms. Eatman had been in custody for 48 days. Ms. Eatman was released the next day.

Outrage and Fallout

“You wonder why these communities don’t trust law enforcement. Can you imagine a more thoughtless, cruel way to handle this? She was treated like a real criminal,” says Cara Smith, Chief Policy Officer for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. “This case terrifies me,” Smith continued. “Let’s remember, her bills continued. Her rent and her heat, all those things continued to accrue despite the fact that she was in jail.” Smith’s outrage at a broken system is clear. “Without so much as an apology or an explanation, it took 49 days of her life away. For no reason at all. And that included 49 days she wasn’t with her son. It included 49 days she wasn’t working. Without so much as an explanation of what happened to her.”

What to Do If This Happens to You

If you find yourself in a similar situation and you or your family have the means, hire a criminal defense attorney right away. If you don’t have the means to hire your own attorney, you are entitled to have one appointed by the courts. There are also different tools you can consider. Different jurisdictions have different ways of handling representation. At a minimum, one should be appointed to you when you first appear before a judge. Contacting the public defender’s office in your area may expedite your case. Just remember, a gentle request will probably get you farther than yelling. Even though you will no doubt want to yell.