Brian Otero was acquitted on a burglary charge but was still sent back to jail because his paperwork still needed to be processed. NBC 5's Investigates Chris Coffey reports on what Sheriff Tom Dart calls an "antiquated" paper system that could end up costing Cook Co. taxpayers millions.
Brian Otero waited nearly two years in Cook County jail to hear his "not guilty" verdict on a burglary charge. But the court's announcement on July 22, 2011, was anything but a Hollywood ending.
"My family was in the courtroom," Otero said. "They actually believed that I was going to go home that day right away."
But Otero, now 28, didn't leave the court room a free man. Sheriff's personnel herded Otero back to a cell. Then he moved to two other cells while he was officially processed out.
Other detainees attacked Otero when they found out he was not guilty and leaving.
"I suffered a torn ligament in my hand. My left hand and my right," Otero said. "I suffered a busted lip and a bruised eye."
But he didn't ask for help. He just wanted to go home.
"I was able to make one phone call at 1:00 a.m. and at that time there was hardly anybody in my family awake," Otero said. "So finally I was able to get a hold of my uncle who came and stood outside for almost 3 hours and waited for me."
Otero finally was released from Cook County jail nine hours after his not guilty verdict.
Otero is no stranger to the court system. He spent time in prison for aggravated battery. But Otero said that should not matter when it came to his acquittal.
"I'm a human being and I should be treated like a human being," Otero said.
Otero is suing Cook County as part of a class action lawsuit. He is being represented by attorney Myron Cherry, who called it "unconstitutional" to detain free citizens following acquittal.
"If you and I sat down right now to figure out how we let a man who is free to leave at the end of court, it wouldn't take us more than 30 seconds to do it," Cherry said. "We'd take off his handcuffs, give him his suit back and say good luck."
Cherry said previous lawsuits on the matter with Cook County have been resolved with money, but not a changing of the system.
Cherry's deposition of a representative of the Cook County Sheriff's Office revealed that it takes anywhere from six to twelve people to look at a judge's order to determine if someone will be discharged following acquittal. A warrant background check is also performed after an acquittal.
"They could have done that at the beginning of the trial," Cherry said. "They could have done that on a lunch break."
Cara Smith is chief of policy and communications for Sheriff Tom Dart. She could not comment on the class action lawsuit, but said the discharging of people from the jail is a very "complicated" system.
"We have a massive operation that we run and the goal of this operation here at the jail is to keep the public safe, and there is no room for error," Smith said.
The sheriff's office said some detainees are in jail on multiple cases. Some are sentenced to either the federal or state prison systems.
"So we are going to every single time make sure that we're releasing people that need to be released and try to do all that we can to make sure that the wrong people aren't released," Smith said.
Sheriff's personnel also manually review about 30,000 pieces of paper a week regarding detainees to and from court, according to Smith. A recent press release sent by Sheriff Dart's office called it an antiquated" paper system by which Cook County's criminal justice agencies still communicate with each other. According to Dart's office, the process has yielded numerous clerical errors, including wrongful releases, which could have been avoided with a digitized system.
But the sheriff's office said it is prioritizing efforts get people out sooner.
Taxpayers may soon find themselves shelling out millions of dollars to change the system. Ten years ago Los Angeles County paid $27 million to detainees who had been acquitted or bonded out.
"I hope and pray that with this lawsuit, everything changes for the better, for every other person that has to go through the same thing that I went through," Otero said.