First Defense Legal Aid (FDLA) began in 1995 as a program under the Chicago Commons Association. FDLA’s core purpose was the maintenance of a 24-hour Chicago Police Custody Hotline, through which all Chicago residents could be connected with an on-call attorney who would provide general legal advice and actual police station representation, free of cost. FDLA became an independent corporation in 2002, and a 501(c)(3) organization in 2003. FDLA’s main focus is still the hotline system, upon which Chicagoans have grown to depend. Today, FDLA also provides educational outreach, participates in community organizing, and engages in systemic reform activities.
In Illinois, as in most states, people are not provided counsel until a judge appoints one. A person generally does not appear in front of a judge for 48 – 72 hours after arrest, which is typically after he has been formally charged. The first 48 hours a person is in custody is critical, as it is during this time that he is most susceptible to having his constitutional rights violated. It is also the time during which police officers employ a variety of tactics to obtain confessions, many of which have proven to result in false confessions. While the police have unlimited access to prosecution attorneys (some of whom play a role in the interrogations) during this time, a suspect does not have similar access to an attorney. FDLA helps level the playing field for anyone in custody while protecting his legal rights.
In an effort to promote the Chicago Police Custody Hotline and educate Chicagoans on the power of their Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendment rights, FDLA presents Street Law in schools and community groups. The Street Law presentations focus on what to do if you are stopped, searched, or arrested by the police, how to assert your rights at home, on the street, and at the police station, and what you can do if you feel that the police have violated your civil rights.
FDLA relies on volunteer attorneys to conduct a significant portion of direct legal representation. FDLA actively recruits volunteer attorneys throughout the Chicago legal community and provides them with necessary training to be effective. At any given time, FDLA has a roster of over one hundred active, well-trained and dedicated volunteer attorneys who take one or more on-call shifts a month.
FDLA’s program is unique. Because FDLA attorneys provide direct legal representation, educational programming, community organizing and political advocacy, FDLA’s staff has a holistic understanding of the problems within the various communities in Chicago. Additionally, FDLA is the beneficiary of insights from the myriad of community organization partners that address varying needs of their constituencies.