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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

DOJ Sues Ferguson Over Rejected Agreement

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Department of Justice filed a civil rights lawsuit Wednesday against Ferguson, Mo., in response to Ferguson's city council seeking changes to a month-old agreement with the department aimed at changing the city's police and municipal court practices.

The Ferguson City Council voted late Tuesday to approve a consent decree with the Justice Department, but with seven stipulations.

The Justice Department slammed the city council's actions late Tuesday, and issued a statement threatening legal action against the city should it be necessary.

The department made good on these threats at a Wednesday evening press conference announcing the filing of a 56-page complaint in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri claiming the Ferguson police department violated the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights of its citizens.

"Defendant's routine violation of constitutional and statutory rights, based in part on prioritizing the misuse of law enforcement authority as a means to generate municipal revenue over legitimate law enforcement purposes, is ongoing and pervasive," the department claims in the complaint. "Further, it is unlikely that the City will remedy these patterns and practices of unlawful conduct absent judicial mandate and oversight."

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she was "disappointed" to hear the city intended to back out of the deal and that the decision left the department no choice but to go to court.

"We intend to aggressively prosecute this case and we intend to prevail," Lynch said at a press conference Wednesday.

Lynch said it was clear throughout the extensive negotiations that the city council would ultimately have a choice between approving the consent decree and going to court.

"The city was well aware that by choosing not to accept it they were choosing litigation," Lynch. "This is their choice."

The lawsuit's allegations were similar to a scathing report released by the DOJ last March. The DOJ claims in the complaint that Ferguson police conduct stops, searches and arrests without legal justification, and use excessive force, in violation of the Fourth Amendment; interfere with the right to free expression in violation of the First Amendment; prosecute and resolve municipal charges in a manner that violates due process and equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment; and engage in discriminatory law enforcement conduct against African Americans.

Ferguson found itself at the center of the national debate about race and policing in 2014 following the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer. Riots rocked the St. Louis suburb after a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who fired the shots that killed Brown.

Negotiations between Ferguson and the DOJ began shortly after the March 2015 report was released and lasted 26 weeks.

The department and Ferguson reached an agreement late last month that requires the city's police to wear body cameras, undergo training on racial bias and prevents officers from stopping people in the streets just to check for outstanding warrants.

But the city sought changes to some of these provisions, including requests to extend deadlines in the agreement as well as to assurances the agreement would not mandate pay raises for police and other city employees.

Lynch could not speculate whether the Justice Department would reopen negotiations with Ferguson, but throughout the press conference emphasized the need to bring relief to city residents who have long suffered under unconstitutional police practices.

"But as our report made clear, the residents of Ferguson have suffered the deprivation of their constitutional rights - the rights guaranteed to all Americans - for decades," Lynch said. "They have waited decades for justice. They should not be forced to wait any longer."

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