April 4, 2018
Fifty years ago today, 39-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead by hate. Civil-rights concerns remain front and center in 2018, as trial lawyer and Fenwick alumnus Tony Romanucci reflects.
By Antonio M. Romanucci ’78
When the term “civil rights” is invoked, many think of images of Martin Luther King, Jr. standing at the forefront of a street march protesting or standing at a podium challenging the leaders of this country for equality and inclusion. However, the reality is that civil rights is far older than MLK and, from its genesis, has evolved into something far more prevalent which dominates the news headlines of today.
Fenwick has a lot to do with my pursuit of justice over a legal career spanning more than 30 years now. The Catholic education I received emphasized inclusion, diversity and equality amongst us all. That helped shape my views towards the realization that we all should be treated with dignity, respect and equality. How many times do you think you have recited the pledge of allegiance? Surely, in the hundreds if not the thousands of times. At least 700 times over four school years at Fenwick alone! How many times have you said the words “and liberty and justice for all” and actually thought about what you were saying — and realized that our forefathers were setting the stage for our country’s future as a melting pot of people, made up of all sorts of races, ethnicities and backgrounds? If only they could realize how prescient they were but also how ominous the future was going to be despite their desire for equality amongst all.
Our country had to fight a brutal internal war to abolish slavery that cost this country economic, moral, emotional and philosophical scars that, to this day, cause deep controversy. Witness the takedowns of the statutes of General Robert E. Lee within the past 12 months because parts of the South remain loyal to a past that most of this country would rather forget. One of the unfortunate consequences of the Civil War left many African-Americans looking in from the outside. Many argue those ills have not been remedied since, despite the passage of the Ku Klux Klan act of 1871 and its nascent 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, the civil rights movement associated with Brown v. Board of Education; the tumultuous times of Emmit Tills and Rosa Parks; the aforementioned MLK era; and then, of course, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which strengthened the rights of private citizens to sue municipalities, cities, states and government when they infringe on one’s constitutional rights.
Indeed, modern-day civil rights are an extension of the CRA and the powers that now lie in the hands of citizens to tell local, state and federal governments that the constitution and its amendments are sacrosanct and cannot be willfully violated — ever. The civil rights lawyer is a protector of those citizens and ensures that government violations are dealt with and, if necessary, paid for. Rest assured that without the civil rights lawyer existing, there would be no civil rights to protect in this country. I have become a civil rights trial lawyer. I am deeply proud of what I do for our people and our country.
The first thing required to determine if there is a viable claim to move forward with an action against a governmental entity for a civil-rights violation is whether or not the constitution was violated. Specifically, when it comes to my personal practice, was there a violation of the 4th, 8th or 14th amendment? What we are looking for is a determination whether there was an unlawful search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment for a detained citizen or a deprivation of due process, respectively. The vast majority of clients we represented involve the 4th Amendment search and seizure issues.
Do police “profile,” or worse?
Now the question you may be asking yourself is how does a violation of the 4th Amendment extend itself into the arena of civil rights? First, the protections afforded by the 4th Amendment and the right to pursue governments is, in and of itself, a protection of a civil right for all private citizens. Secondly, and of great dispute, is whether some of the violations of the 4th Amendment are racially biased. As a result, the modern civil rights era is born and the issues surrounding whether the killing of black men by the hands of police is racially charged or not.
In August of 2014, a young black male by the name of Michael Brown was shot and killed outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Unbelievably, in almost rapid succession following Brown’s killing, were the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald and others – and all shared one trait; they were African-American males, young and old. They all died at the hands of white police officers and the clear majority were captured on electronic media.
Not since the days of Rodney King [in the early 1990s] has our country experienced or witnessed the scale of protests, rioting and demonstrations in the name of racial inequality. There is no doubt that the public had seen enough and action was demanded. Indeed, police departments across the country increased training, reformed existing policies, taught officers important de-escalation techniques, increased hiring and vowed their use of deadly force against blacks was not racially motivated. Whether it was or not, public perception held it was racially motivated because why hadn’t any young white folk been asphyxiated to death merely for selling illegal cigarettes. Get the picture?
In fact, here in our own hometown of Chicago, there exists a piece of litigation that could alter the course of police relations with our community. Over a five-year period of time, Chicago police officers (CPOs) were routinely using a police tactic referred to as “stop and frisk,” popularized due to the fact that it is advertised as a method to keep guns and drugs off the street. It is lawful for a police officer to stop a private citizen on the public way if that officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that either criminal activity is afoot or a crime is about to be committed. Without that, an officer has no basis to stop a citizen and is not allowed to frisk or go into the belongings of that citizen without consent, a warrant or probable cause for arrest.
Unfortunately, the data uncovered by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the lawsuit reveals that CPOs routinely used the stop-and-frisk tactic to target young black males to search them for guns or other illegal contraband. Over a two-year period within the five-year period, CPD officers whiffed 1,700,000 times in these stop and frisks – meaning NO arrests were made in any of those stops. Worse yet, 72% of the stops were of African-Americans whereas they make up less than 30% of the city’s population. Whether the stop was in a predominantly black neighborhood or a white one, for example, the numbers did not match the defense that blacks are the ones who commit the majority of the crimes and, therefore, there was reasonable justification for stopping a disproportionate number of blacks over whites and Latinos.
One Chicago police superintendent lost his job because of the appearance his police department was racist. The head of the police oversight board lost his job, too. In fact, the entire board was dissolved in favor of a new one, which went into effect in September 2017. The current mayor is on thin ice with voter disapproval. However, during the last five years, even in the face of proclaimed reforms, the City of Chicago has been made responsible for over $300 million in awards and settlements because of police misconduct.
The time for hollow reform is over. The time for real reform has passed. The time to be real in what our government officials say is right now. The consequences may be dire in the face of the modern civil rights movement.
About the Author
Antonio Romanucci is a founding partner, principal and trial lawyer in the Chicago-based tort litigation law firm of Romanucci & Blandin, LLC, which has successfully recovered over $450 million dollars on behalf of victims. Mr. Romanucci concentrates his practice in wrongful death and personal injury, including police misconduct, aviation and the representation of victims of sexual abuse. He has been named a Top 100 Super Lawyer for 10 consecutive years in Illinois, a Leading Lawyer since 2004, and has a perfect Martindale Hubble AV rating and an AVVO rating of 10/10 along with being named a “Best Lawyer” by U.S. News and World Report.
For his public-speaking adeptness, the attorney extends a large share of credit to Fenwick teacher Andy Arellano, who has been instructing sophomore Friars in speech classes for 45 years at the Oak Park private school. “Mr. Arellano was tremendously encouraging,” says Romanucci, one of literally thousands of Arellano’s former students. “He has an ability to extract hidden talents from his students, many of whom do not yet know that they possess these gifts. I remain forever grateful to him for his gift to me.”