A little before noon on Sunday, Oct. 26, 1980, Bancroft Dudley Hall was sitting in his car on a pleasant street in Milton, a suburb of Boston, waiting for his 17-year-old daughter, who had spent the previous night at the home of a school friend. As his daughter, Sandra, got into the car, a policeman, his gun out, materialized alongside the automobile and told Hall to "get up" his identification.
Hall asked the officer why he was pointing a gun at him, and also why he was asking for his identification. According to Hall, the policeman responded by telling him to shut up, adding, "Around here you don't ask questions." Bancroft Hall, a safety administrator with the Polaroid Corp., has a wallet abounding with various cards, and being somewhat unsettled by the official attention he was receiving, he was having some difficulty finding his license.
While searching, Hall was also doing some talking about how "being black, you can't drive through Milton without being bothered by the cops." Finding the license, he gave it to the officer, who said, "The next time I stop you and you take this long to identify yourself, you are going to be shot."
Another cop approached the car and, according to a deposition by Bancroft Hall, this second policeman put his arm through the door and hit Sandra Hall in the face with the palm of his hand. Trembling, the girl then watched her father being dragged out of the car, thrown on the ground, kneed, and handcuffed.
The classmate with whom Sandra Hall had stayed the night before ran up and told the cops that the man on the ground had simply come to pick up her friend, his daughter, who by then was screaming. In the paddy wagon on the way to the station, Bancroft Hall noted, without getting any response,that it is no wonder so many black people in this country have criminal records.
At the police station, Hall was told he could go home. The story had checked out. He really had been in Milton to pick up his daughter. (The reason the police had descended in the first place, they claim, is that a "concerned" neighbor, seeing this black man on a Sunday morning on this street so unaccustomed to people of his sort, did her civic duty and picked up the phone.)
There was only one formality before Hall could go home. He had to sign a waiver by which he would agree to release the cops from liability for false arrest or anything else they had done to him that morning. In turn, charges against Hall would be dropped. Lawyers are expensive, he was told by the officer in charge. Sign the piece of paper. But why should he sign a release, Hall said, when he had been arrested for no reason? Finally, reluctantly, he signed. His daughter wanted to go home. And on the phone, a real estate lawyer, the only lawyer Hall had ever had need of before, told him to sign.
Bancroft Hall and his daughter are suing the town of Milton and seven police officers for compensatory and punitive damages ($100,000 in each category for the father and $50,000 in each category for the daughter). But, how can they sue when Hall signed the release? That is the constitutional core of this case, Hall v. Ochs, and the reason why police officials throughout the country have been intently following its progress.
The Halls' attorneys, Michael Avery and John Reinstein (Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union), charge the release is invalid because it was signed under coercion. They argue that Hall had to choose between continued, illegal incarceration or waiving his constitutional right to go to court to sue. Furthermore, the fact that the printed release was ready for Hall to sign indicates, say his lawyers, that the town of Milton has a municipal policy of violating constitutional rights in these matters. Accordingly, the Halls aim to collect not only from the cops individually but also from the municipality itself.
It is a common practice around the country for police or prosecutors to make this offer--a release for a release. Yet, there's not all that much case law on the issue. This, for instance, is the first time the release has been tested in Massachusetts.
There has not been much protest because when the deal is made in a police station, the citizen does indeed believe he has forfeited the right to sue, and so he doesn't sue. When a prosecutor makes the offer to drop the charges in return for a release, many defense attorneys figure it's to the client's benefit whenever you can walk him out of the courtroom.
But since the experience of Bancroft and Sandra Hall is not unique, and since we do have a Constitution, it is long past time for this practice to be declared plainly unlawful by the courts. The trial in this particular case may not take place until fall, and an appeal is likely no matter who wins. Meanwhile, black citizens going for a drive on Sunday through Milton-- and many other white communities--might be wise to bring a back-seat constitutional lawyer along.