ACLU Settles Lawsuit Brought By MA Needle Exchange Worker

October 8, 1999 12:00 am

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BOSTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts today settled a lawsuit against the City of Cambridge and several police officers on behalf of a man who was arrested for possession of hypodermic needles, held for more than two days, and denied his epilepsy medications, even though he showed the police evidence that he was an outreach worker for Boston’s needle exchange program.

The ACLU lawsuit said that Cambridge police officers violated Thomas Sullivan’s rights in 1994 by arresting him without probable cause, holding him in custody for more than 24 hours without probable cause, and failing to provide Sullivan with his medication, even though the arresting officers had seen him having a seizure and he wore a medic alert bracelet indicating his need for medication.

In settling the case, the City and the individual officers denied any wrongdoing. However, the settlement provides for a monetary payment to Sullivan and his attorneys, and provides for significant changes in policy and procedure for the police department.

“Tom Sullivan has always said he hoped no one else would have to experience what he did,” said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts, who represented Sullivan. “We think the changes agreed to by the City should make a difference in the treatment of people arrested in the City of Cambridge.”

Wunsch said the Cambridge police apparently believed, incorrectly, that only participants in the Cambridge needle exchange program were exempt from arrest in Cambridge under state law.

The agreed-upon changes will revise the police department’s policy in the following ways:

  • People who prove they are participants in the Department of Public Health’s needle exchange program are to be considered in lawful possession of hypodermic needles and syringes and shall not be arrested, regardless of the city or town which sponsors the program;
  • Those who are arrested and request prescription medication that is not with them shall be taken to Cambridge Hospital for timely medical attention;
  • The booking form for arrestees will be amended to include an inquiry about the person’s need for medication;
  • The booking form will require a notation that a bail commissioner has been called, regardless of the financial resources of the arrestee, since most of the harm Sullivan suffered could have been avoided by his release the first evening; and
  • Police offers will be reminded, and a notation make on the booking sheet, that people arrested without a warrant may not be held longer than 24 hours without an independent determination of probable cause unless extraordinary circumstances exist.

From Friday evening, July 29, 1994, until Monday, August 1, 1994, Sullivan held in police custody was arrested and denied his medication, causing him to suffer numerous seizures. He finally fell and cut his head. When Sullivan was taken to the courthouse on Monday morning, court officers told Cambridge police officers that he needed to be taken to the hospital, where he received stitches and medication.

On August 2, 1994, a district court judge ruled that Sullivan was not guilty on the charges of unlawful possession of hypodermic needles and syringes.

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