A Muslim woman who alleges Chicago police threw her to the ground and ripped off her headscarf and veil has been given the go-ahead to pursue a civil rights claim against the city.
In a written opinion Friday, U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey did not rule on the merits of Itemid Al Matar’s allegation that officers attacked her without cause in violation of her right to freedom of religious expression.
Blakey also did not rule on Al Matar’s contention that the city is liable for any damages she is awarded because it fails to adequately train officers and tolerates a code of silence within the police department.
But Blakey held Al Matar’s allegations are sufficient to allow her to pursue her suit against the city as well as six police officers.
A municipality is liable for the unconstitutional actions of its employees if those actions stem from an official policy or custom, Blakey wrote, citing Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).
He wrote the policy or custom can be in the form of a written policy, a widespread practice or a decision made by an employee with policymaking authority.
Al Matar has plausibly alleged she was subjected to constitutional violations that included the use of excessive force, false arrest, an unlawful search and infringement of her freedom to religious expression, Blakey wrote, citing White v. City of Chicago, 829 F.3d 837 (7th Cir. 2016), cert. denied sub nom., 137 S. Ct. 526 (2016).
Al Matar also has plausibly alleged, he wrote, that certain officers stood by and did nothing to help her when her rights were being violated.
And Al Matar has plausibly alleged that these purported violations stemmed from widespread practices — a failure to train officers regarding “religious sensitivity” and a belief that wrongdoing does not have to be reported — within the police department, Blakey wrote.
He denied the city’s motion to dismiss Al Matar’s claim against it.
An attorney for Al Matar, Gregory E. Kulis of Gregory E. Kulis & Associates Ltd., said he is pleased with Blakey’s ruling.
“The court correctly indicated there was enough evidence in our complaint that the practice and policy of the city of Chicago was the impetus of the actions of the officers in this case,” he said.
The lead attorney for the city is Jonathan Clark Green of the corporation counsel’s office.
Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to comment, saying the case is pending.
On July 4, 2015, Al Matar was walking up the stairs at the Chicago Transit Authority stop at State and Lake streets when she was stopped by police.
Al Matar alleges the officers threw her to the ground without provocation and ripped off her hijab, or headscarf, and her niqab, or face veil.
Other officers stood by and did not intervene, Al Matar alleges.
The officers arrested her to cover up their use of excessive force, Al Matar maintains, and brought bogus criminal charges against her.
The officers then took her to a police station, where she was ordered to strip naked, Al Matar contends.
She says she was required to go to court numerous times until she was acquitted in a trial in state court.
Security camera footage of the incident shows officers approaching Al Matar from behind as she climbs the stairs.
One of the officers pushes Al Matar to the stair landing before she and the officers move out of the camera’s range.
According to The Associated Press, a police report says the officers decided to take Al Matar into custody because they feared she might be a “lone wolf suicide bomber.”
Al Matar was exhibiting “suspicious behavior,” including clutching a backpack and walking at “a brisk pace, in a determined manner,” the report says.
It says a dog trained to sniff for explosives detected none and that the devices strapped around Al Matar’s ankles turned out to be ankle weights.
In addition to the First Amendment claim, counts in Al Matar’s suit include excessive force, failure to intervene, false arrest, unlawful search and malicious prosecution.
Al Matar maintains the officers targeted her because of her religious garb.
A total of at least 35 civilian complaints have been brought against the officers, Al Matar alleges.
She alleges a use-of-force complaint against one of the officers, D.R. Borchardt, was sustained.
Since 2009, the Council for American-Islamic Relations in Chicago has received reports of more than 50 incidents of Islamic targeting by Chicago police, Al Matar maintains.
And in Obrycka v. City of Chicago, 913 F. Supp. 2nd 598 (2012), she notes, a federal jury concluded there is a widespread practice within the police department to fail to investigate or punish wrongdoing by officers.
Al Matar, a student from Saudi Arabia, still lives in Chicago.
The case is Itemid Al Matar v. D.R. Borchardt, et al., No. 16 C 8033.
By Patricia Manson
Law Bulletin staff writer
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