People's Law Office

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People's Law Office (PLO)[1] is a law office in Chicago, Illinois, which focuses on representing clients who have been the victims of attacks by governmental officials and agencies. Such clients include political activists who have been targeted because of their opinions or organizing work, people who have been wrongfully arrested and imprisoned or subjected to excessive force, and criminal defendants.


PLO began as a law collective in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when a group of lawyers, attempting to deal with the hundreds of criminal cases of people arrested in the protests, decided they wanted to work in and with the movement for social and political change. The idea was to have an office that would be part of that movement, with a workload determined by political events and involvements, free of the normal constraints of a law firm. PLO’s organization as a non-hierarchical collective has, for the most part, continued to the present, with all attorneys who stay at the office for more than a few years becoming equal partners, having an equal say in decisions about running the office and receiving equal pay, and other attorneys and office staff being consulted about office decisions.[2]

Legal Work[edit]

Black Panther Party[edit]

In its early years, PLO was noteworthy for its representation of the Black Panther Party (BPP), and in particular for representing one of the leaders of the BPP in Chicago, Fred Hampton. When Hampton and another BPP leader, Mark Clark, were killed in a police raid in the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, PLO lawyers took the lead in investigating the case and exposing the police story of a shoot-out as a lie. PLO lawyers were able to demonstrate that the police fired all but one of the shots and to publicly establish that it was a “shoot-in” and murder, rather than a shootout.[3][4][5] Subsequently, PLO and other lawyers filed a civil suit in relation to the raid which led to the exposure of the federal government’s involvement in the raid, that the raid was part of the FBI COINTELPRO program designed to destroy the Panthers, and that Hampton’s bodyguard was in fact an FBI informant.[6] After an 18-month trial of the civil suit, during which PLO lawyers Jeffrey Haas and G. Flint Taylor, together with attorney James D. Montgomery, served as trial counsel, and presided over by the notoriously irascible and pro-police Judge Sam Perry, the jury was hung, but the judge entered judgment in favor of the government defendants. This decision was reversed on appeal with the appeals court finding that there was substantial evidence of a conspiracy between the FBI, Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and the police to murder Hampton and destroy the Panthers.[7] After the case was sent back to the trial court, and a new judge, it was settled in the early 1980s for a then-unprecedented $1.85 million.[8]

Attica Prison Rebellion[edit]

PLO lawyers also took the lead in the legal representation of the Attica prisoners following the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion. As some of the first lawyers into the prison following the suppression of the uprising and the killing by law enforcement of 39 guards and prisoners, they learned of the atrocities committed by law enforcement, developed relationships with many of the prisoner leaders and worked on several of the injunctive cases which sought relief from the maltreatment of prisoners in the aftermath of the massacre. When 62 prisoners were charged with crimes arising out of the rebellion, but no government officials were charged with the 39 deaths or the torture of prisoners following the retaking, PLO lawyers relocated to the site of the criminal trials, Buffalo, New York, where they worked with other lawyers, law students and paralegals to defend the prisoners. Eventually, almost all the prisoners were acquitted or the charges against them were dismissed. In 1976, New York Governor Hugh Carey pardoned all of the prisoners who had pled guilty in return for reduced sentences, and commuted the sentences of the two prisoners who had been convicted at trial.[9] PLO lawyers also joined with other attorneys to file a civil case on behalf of the prisoners. This case continued for years, and eventually resulted in a settlement for the prisoners for $12 million.[10]

Representing Prisoners[edit]

In addition to the Attica prisoners, PLO also represented prisoners in several other prisons in the 1970s, challenging the segregation of prisoner organizers, fighting against prison behavior modification units, later named “control units,” and defending jailhouse lawyers. After an uprising at Pontiac prison in 1978, PLO lawyers helped coordinate the legal defense of the prisoners charged with crimes, 17 of who faced the death penalty. All the prisoners charged with capital crimes were eventually acquitted or the charges were dropped.[11] PLO also litigated to improve medical care in prisons. In Green v. Carlson,[12] PLO sued federal Bureau of Prisons officials for the death of a prisoner at Terre Haute Federal Prison and eventually obtained a ruling from the United States Supreme Court upholding the right of a prisoner to bring a cruel and unusual punishment claim for damages against federal officials. And in Cleavinger v. Saxner,[13] PLO lawyers represented two prisoners who had been disciplined for petitioning for the improvement of medical care at Terre Haute prison. The U.S. Supreme Court held that prison officials were properly held liable in money damages for this wrongful discipline. PLO continues to work with prisoners today and is currently involved with litigation involving the lack of medical care for prisoners, and the failure to effectively prevent jail suicide.

Support for The Puerto Rican Independence Movement[edit]

In the 1970s the office became involved in the struggle to free five fighters for Puerto Rican independence: Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irvin Flores, Oscar Collazo, Lolita Lebrón, and Andrés Figueroa Cordero, four of whom had opened fired in the U.S. Congress in 1954, with the fifth involved in a shooting outside Blair House in 1950. This struggle ended successfully in 1979, when the sentences of the four who remained in prison (Cordero had been released the year before because he had terminal cancer) were unconditionally commuted and they were released.[14] The office also represented other militant proponents of Puerto Rican independence, fighting subpoenas issued against supporters of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) fugitives and other pro-independence activists. In 1980, when 11 alleged FALN members were arrested and charged with numerous criminal offenses including seditious conspiracy, they refused to recognize the authority of the U.S. courts to criminalize their struggle against colonialism and asserted a prisoner of war position and PLO lawyers gave legal assistance to them by preparing a petition to the U.N. Decolonization Committee and the Human Rights Commission in support of their position. When other alleged FALN member were charged with seditious conspiracy in 1985, PLO lawyers helped defend them. All of these alleged FALN members were convicted and most sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Also in 1985, PLO began to represent an alleged member of the Macheteros, a clandestine pro- Puerto Rican independence organization, who was charged, with others, in Hartford Conn. with conspiracy to rob Wells Fargo of $7.3 million. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the office was involved in monitoring the prison conditions of the Puerto Rican political prisoners, speaking and writing about the violations of their human rights, participating in delegations and meetings with the Department of Justice and the White House, advocating for their release and coordinating with the campaign for their release. In 1999, in response to this movement, President Clinton offered to release most of the prisoners, and they were released. One of the prisoners, Oscar López Rivera, did not accept the offer to him, on the grounds that it required him to serve an additional ten years and it did not include all of the prisoners. Those prisoners not included in President Clinton’s offer were released in 2009 and 2010, but Oscar Rivera remains in prison and PLO continues to work in the ongoing campaign for his release.[15]

Representing Demonstrators and Activists[edit]

From its inception, PLO has represented demonstrators and activists. In the 1970s this included the BPP, the Young Lords, Young Patriots, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the anti-Vietnam-war movement, militant community organizations such as Concerned Citizens of Lincoln Park and the Latin American Defense Organization, Iranian students demonstrating in the 1970s against the Shah and his secret police (SAVAK), Palestinian students protesting against Israeli Day, Dennis Brutus, a South African poet and political activist who the government was attempting to deport, demonstrators against U.S. intervention in Central America, activists arrested for civil disobedience and sanctuary networking, anti-intervention and anti-nuclear demonstrators who were alleged to have trespassed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, women who were arrested on International Women’s Day for chaining themselves to the Playboy Club, demonstrators arrested at protests against the Rock Island Arsenal, Pledge of Resistance demonstrators, Armed Forces Day demonstrators, Hiroshima Day demonstrators, and Sanctuary supporters, anti-apartheid protestors, toxic waste demonstrators, homeless activists, anti-CIA protesters, anti-Zionist protesters, and demonstrators who protested discriminatory Chicago Transit Authority hiring practices. In the 1980s PLO continued this work, joining in the protests against U.S. involvement in Central America, South Africa, and the Middle East and representing in criminal court activists who were arrested for direct action and civil disobedience, as well as activists from many different organizations, including student groups, the Emergency Clinic Defense Coalition (a pro-choice direct action group), Homeless on the Move for Equality, Greenpeace, Queer Nation, ADAPT (a disability rights activist group), activists protesting the lack of Latino hiring at the Chicago Transit Authority, and ACORN. The office also defended the Pledge of Resistance and Queer Nation against injunctions brought against them, in the case of Queer Nation by a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Indiana to enjoin protests concerning homophobic incidents and discriminatory hiring practices, and in the case of the Pledge of Resistance by the Water Tower Place shopping center management company, seeking to prohibit them from bringing their message to holiday consumers by singing rewritten lyrics to popular carols. PLO’s involvement with activist groups in the 90s was exemplified by work with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), coordinating legal observers at demonstrations and providing representation in criminal and civil courts. At a demonstration against the American Medical Association in June, 1991, 27 ACT UP members were arrested and brutalized by Chicago police. PLO participated in the criminal defense where most charges were thrown out, and then filed and successfully litigated civil rights complaints on behalf of several of the demonstrators. More recently, PLO has represented over 800 people who were arrested or detained at a 2003 demonstration against the start of the Iraq war.[16] After initially coordinating the successful criminal defense of the demonstrators, PLO lawyers and other National Lawyers Guild attorneys then filed a class action case against the City of Chicago and its employees, asserting that the arrests were unconstitutional. Although a judge dismissed the case because there was no permit for the march, an appeals court reversed and held that the City could be liable because it had failed to give marchers orders to disperse prior to arresting them.[17] The case then settled, with the City agreeing to pay $6.2 million to the plaintiffs.[18] People's law Office is currently involved in defending members of the Occupy movement [19] and demonstrators arrested during the May, 2012, protests at the Chicago NATO summit.[20][21][22]

Fighting Against the Death Penalty[edit]

People’s Law Office has consistently opposed the death penalty, and has worked on several cases in which the death penalty has been reversed. These have included a case which changed Illinois law as to who could be sentenced to death,[23] a case where a corrupt judge initially agreed to take a bribe, then returned it when he found out that the FBI was investigating him and sentenced the defendants to death,[24] a case where PLO was able to establish that the same corrupt judge treated defendants who did not pay him bribes exceptionally harshly,[25] and an Indiana case where PLO was able to get the death penalty reversed by demonstrating that African Americans were systematically excluded from the jury pool which sentenced the defendant to death.[26] PLO also represented several prisoners in successfully defending former Governor Ryan’s commutation of the death sentences of all prisoners on Illinois’ death row,[27] and was active in the movement which culminated in the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois.[28]

False Arrests and Convictions[edit]

PLO has represented and obtained money damages for many clients who were falsely arrested or convicted, including Kenny Adams, one of the Ford Heights Four - 4 innocent men who spent a total of 65 years in prison for a crime which they did not commit and who eventually obtained a record $36 million settlement;[29] the 8-year-old boy who was notoriously charged with the murder of Ryan Harris on the basis of a confession he allegedly gave to detectives, where fuller investigation established that there was semen on the body which came from a repeat sexual offender;[30] Miguel Castillo, convicted of murder, where PLO was able to establish he was in jail on another charge at the time of the killing;[31] Ronald Jones, who was sentenced to death where DNA subsequently established his innocence;[32] Larry Mayes, an Indiana man imprisoned for almost 20 years for rape where DNA showed he was not the rapist and investigation showed that the eyewitness had been secretly hypnotized;[33] Jerry Miller, who served almost 25 years before DNA proved that another man, who had subsequently committed several other assaults, was the perpetrator of a rape;[34] and George Jones, accused of rape and murder, where PLO lawyers established the existence of secret Chicago Police Department files containing exculpatory information, which in this case contained the name of the likely real killer.[35][36]

Police Brutality and Torture[edit]

Throughout the existence of the PLO its attorneys have litigated many cases in which victims were physically abused by the police or other government agents. In 1988 the office undertook the representation of Andrew Wilson, who was beaten, burned and electroshocked by several detectives, including the commanding officer of the Violent Crimes Unit, Lt. Jon Burge, after being arrested for killing two police officers. In the Wilson case, PLO generated substantial evidence that Burge and his detectives routinely tortured criminal defendants to obtain confessions, but most of the evidence was barred from the trial by a hostile judge, and after two trials, the plaintiff lost. On appeal, however, PLO was able to obtain a reversal of the verdict, and after the case was sent back to the trial court it settled for over a million dollars. PLO continued to press the City of Chicago and its police department to discipline Burge and the other officers involved in the torture, and after significant public pressure, including many demonstrations at the City Council and the Police Board, internal police department charges were brought against Burge and two other detectives, and Burge was eventually fired. PLO continued to push for Burge to be criminally charged, which he was, eventually, by the federal government, on charges that he had lied when he denied under oath that he was aware of torture. Burge was convicted[37] and is currently serving time in federal prison.[38] PLO’s work in exposing torture led to their representation of several other people who had been convicted after giving coerced confessions, obtaining both the reversals of their convictions and money damages for their false imprisonment. In addition to these cases, PLO has represented many clients who have been subjected to excessive force by police officers in cases that are not tied to false convictions.

Representing the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer (LGBTQ) Communities[edit]

In recent years, PLO has been representing more and more people from LGBTQ communities, who have been targeted or punished in the criminal legal system because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. This has included representing a lesbian who was sentenced to death for murder, where the focus of the prosecution sentencing argument was that she was a “hard core lesbian”; representing several transgender and gender non-conforming people who have been illegally and unconstitutionally strip searched, harassed or discriminated against while in police custody; and defending gay men who are falsely accused of engaging in public sex acts. PLO is also involved in efforts to force police departments to change their policies, or lack of policies, concerning the treatment of transgender or gender non-conforming people while in police custody. Joey Mogul, a People's Law Office attorney, recently co-authored a book exploring the experiences of sexually non-conforming people in the criminal justice system.[39]

Supreme Court Litigation[edit]

People’s Law Office has argued before the United States Supreme Court on 4 occasions:

  • Buckley v. Fitzsimmons[40] determined that prosecutors are not entitled to absolute immunity for investigative activities, and held that they could be sued for damages for wrongly prosecuting Stephen Buckly for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico;
  • Soldal v. Cook County[41] held that the Fourth Amendment protects property as well as privacy and that government participation in an illegal eviction can amount to a violation of tenants’ constitutional rights;
  • Cleavinger v. Saxner[42] established that members of prison disciplinary committees are only entitled to qualified, rather than absolute, immunity from lawsuits when imposing discipline on prisoners, and upheld a jury verdict for plaintiff David Saxner;
  • Green v. Carlson[43] held that federal prisoners have a right to sue under the Eighth Amendment for failure to provide adequate medical treatment.

In addition, PLO lawyers have argued several cases in the Illinois Supreme Court,[44][45][46][47] as well as the Indiana Supreme Court.[48]

People's Law Office and the National Lawyers Guild[edit]

Throughout its history, PLO, has been active within the National Lawyers Guild,[49] participating on the local and national level. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) was founded in 1937 as an association of progressive lawyers and jurists who joined together to fight for the reconstruction of legal values to emphasize human rights over property rights, goals which coincide with many of the principles that underlie the work of PLO. PLO has been active as NLG officers in the Chicago chapter and has worked with the national organization on such issues as the struggle of the Palestinian and Puerto Rican people, representing the Attica prisoners, providing legal support for progressive groups and fighting against government brutality and repression. In addition, PLO took a leading role in the creation and production of the NLG affiliated Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Law Report, a newsletter containing articles on current issues in police misconduct and civil rights litigation, and helped found the National Police Accountability Project (NPAP)[50] “with the intent of helping end police abuse of authority and to provide support for grassroots and victims’ organizations combating police misconduct.”


  1. ^
  2. ^ Jeffrey Haas. The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. (Chicago: Lawrence Hill. 2010). pp. 43-60.
  3. ^ The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, Haas, Jeffrey
  4. ^
  5. ^ chicago-police-forty-years-later
  6. ^
  7. ^ Hampton v. Hanrahan, 600 F.2d 600 (7th Cir. 1979),
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Green v. Carlson, 446 U.S. 14 (1980),
  13. ^ Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 194 (1985),
  14. ^,9171,947395,00.html
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^ Vodak v. City of Chicago, 639 F.3d 738 (7th Cir. 2011),
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^,0,2938881.story
  22. ^
  23. ^ People v. Mack, 167 Ill. 2d 525 (1995),
  24. ^ People v. Fields, 181 Ill. 2d 41 (1998)
  25. ^ Bracy v. Schomig, 286 F.3d 406 (7th Cir. 2002),
  26. ^ Azania v. State of Indiana, 775 N.E.2d 1253 (2002)
  27. ^ People ex rel. Madigan v. Snyder, 208 Ill. 2d 457 (2004)
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^ United States v. Burge, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4905 (N.D. Ill. Jan. 19, 2011)
  38. ^ -0123-20110121_1_burge-s-midnight-crew-special-cook-county-prosecutor-chicago-police-cmdr
  39. ^
  40. ^ Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259 (1993)
  41. ^ Soldal v. Cook County, 506 U.S. 56 (1992)
  42. ^ Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193 (1986)
  43. ^ Green v. Carlson, 446 U.S. 14 (1980)
  44. ^ People ex rel. Madigan v. Snyder, 208 Ill. 2d 457 (2004)
  45. ^ People v. Patterson, 192 Ill. 2d 93 (2000)
  46. ^ People v. Fields, 181 Ill. 2d 41 (1998)
  47. ^ People v. Mack, 167 Ill. 2d 525 (1995)
  48. ^ Azania v. State of Indiana, 775 N.E.2d 1253 (2002)
  49. ^
  50. ^

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