Alderman, officers named in suit over phone incident
by BRIAN NADIG
A federal lawsuit filed last week alleges that local officials and police officers abused their power when they had a man arrested for allegedly stealing a cell phone belonging to a city worker.
The lawsuit names Alderman James Gardiner (45th), 45th Ward superintendent Charles Sikanich and seven Chicago police officers and detectives. The lawsuit alleges that Gardiner "ordered" Sikanich to report his phone stolen after he had told the alderman and others in the ward office that it was lost.
The city Law Department and Gardiner did not comment on the lawsuit when contacted by Nadig Newspapers.
According to the lawsuit, Benjamin George found the phone the morning of Aug. 19, 2019, on a counter at the 7-Eleven convenience store at 6000 W. Higgins Ave. and intended to bring the phone to the 16th District Police Station, 5151 N. Milwaukee Ave., at the conclusion of his workday.
At the station, George was taken into custody and police later found a gun inside his vehicle, which the lawsuit claims had not been returned to George by the time of the lawsuit’s filing. George, who had an empty holster at the time of his arrest inside the station, had a firearm owners identification card and a conceal carry license, the lawsuit states.
According to Chicago police, a man was observed on a store surveillance video taking the phone without consent and officers contacted the man during an investigation and he allegedly told them that he did take the cell phone and would turn himself in and return the item. The man was placed into custody after he returned the phone at the station and was later charged with a misdemeanor theft, police said.
Charges were dropped about a month later against George when police officers did not show up in court for the case, according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, while in the station’s lockup, an officer allegedly told George that " I wasn’t going to arrest you, but this person has power and I have bosses." The lawsuit states that the quote is "substantially similar" to what the officer said.
The lawsuit claims that before arriving at the station George had received a phone call from his roommate reporting that officers were at their home "aggressively" inquiring about the phone and that one of the officers talked to George and instructed him to bring the phone to the station.
George’s attorney Daniel Massoglia of the First Defense Legal Aid said that police created what amounted to a "task force" to track down a missing phone and that the reasons which led police to George’s home will come out during the litigation. He added that his client had no prior history with Gardiner and Sikanich before the cell phone incident and that "we have witnesses" who will corroborate the allegations in the lawsuit.
"I never thought that picking up a lost cell phone and returning it to the police would get me arrested. I guess in Chicago, if you tick off powerful people, this is what happens," George said in a news release issued by his attorneys.
The lawsuit also charges that an officer allegedly called George "a gypsy" in an apparent reference to his Romanian ancestry and threatened to upgrade the charge against him to a felony.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages against the City of Chicago, the individuals named in the lawsuit and other unnamed police officers.
Due to the incident, George eventually was required to leave his home by his roommate, lost business income and suffered a mental breakdown leading to a psychiatric commitment at a hospital, according to the news release.
The lawsuit was filed by both Legal Aid and the Law Offices of Elizabeth Homsy.