ST. LOUIS (CN) — While acknowledging the program has its problems, the Eighth Circuit ultimately ruled Tuesday a controversial wanted alert system used by St. Louis County police is constitutional.
Using the so-called "wanteds" system, St. Louis County Police Department officers who wish to interview a subject can issue a statewide wanted alert for that person’s arrest by any other officer. The notice is issued by officers without approval of a neutral magistrate judge.
U.S. Circuit Judges Bobby E. Shepherd and David Stras both joined U.S. Circuit Judge Ralph R. Erickson's majority opinion while concurring and dissenting in part in a decision that both criticized and upheld the system.
“We are unpersuaded by several...reasons offered by the Officers as to why a warrant is unnecessary and Wanteds are reasonable,” wrote Erickson, a Donald Trump appointee. “The SLCPD’s expression of doubt that a neutral magistrate will issue an arrest warrant unless officers speak with the suspect prior to making the warrant application defies logic.”
Still, the system passed constitutional muster for the three-judge panel.
"That said, regardless of the reasons for the creation of SLCPD’s Wanteds System or its continued purpose, arrests may be effectuated under this system that do not violate the Constitution," the ruling states.
Dwayne Furlow and Ralph Torres filed a federal lawsuit in 2016 claiming the used of wanted notices violated their Fourth Amendment rights. They claim the U.S. Constitution guarantees that no warrant shall be issued without probable cause and that probable cause must be assessed by “someone independent of the police and prosecution.”
Furlow and Torres further claim there was no notification that a wanted alert had been issued against them and no mechanism to challenge it. The notices can remain in effect for years.
U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey dismissed the case, finding that the issuing of the notices adhered to the constitutional safeguards implemented by the U.S. Supreme Court, that the individual defendants had probable cause to issue a wanted alert for the plaintiffs, and that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.
On appeal, Furlow's and Torres' attorney Eric Alan Stone of Paul Weiss told the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit during an April hearing that the system was simply a result of officers' desire to avoid doing required legwork.
Like the district court, the appeals court was unpersuaded that the system is unconstitutional.
“The Wanteds System is broad enough to encompasses situations that do not violate the Constitution, including those involving an arrest immediately after an officer has entered a wanted,” Erickson wrote in Tuesday's ruling, noting that exceptions to the warrant requirement have been created to account for the practical demands of effective criminal investigation and law enforcement.
The panel found that because of those constitutional applications, the plaintiffs' facial challenge fails.
Erickson also wrote that two individual officers named in the lawsuit are entitled to qualified immunity, but another individual defendant, Detective Laura Clements, is not.
“It is arguable that Detective Clements had probable cause to believe Torres committed a crime when she first issued the Wanted, but Torres’ case later evolved,” Erickson wrote. “By the time Torres was seized pursuant to the Wanted, Detective Clements should have known that probable cause had evaporated.”
Erickson also concluded that St. Louis County was qualified for municipal immunity.
“The evidence in the record before us does not show a persistent pattern of unconstitutional arrests so pervasive that it can be said to constitute custom or usage with the force of law,” Erickson wrote.
Shepherd, a George W. Bush appointee, concurred in part and dissented in part. He wrote that Furlow's and Torres' Monell claim against St. Louis County, which would hold it liable for the officers' and Clements’ actions, was better left for the district court to decide, noting that he had no opinion whether such a claim had been established.
Stras, another Trump appointee, concurred in part and in the judgment. He brought up the tradition of wanted posters used in the Wild West in the 19th century.
“Although the old west is a bygone era, wanted posters still exist today,” Stras wrote. “Except now officers send out electronic messages and place the information in a computer database. The question is whether these 'wanteds,' as St. Louis County calls them, violate the Fourth Amendment. Based on the long common-law tradition of warrantless felony arrests supported by probable cause, I would conclude that the answer is no.”
The panel remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings based on their ruling.
St. Louis County Counselor Beth Orwick declined to comment since the case is considered pending litigation. Plaintiffs' attorneys did not immediately respond to emails requesting comment.
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