Ferguson Protesters Challenge Prosecutions

     ST. LOUIS (CN) — On the second anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, a group of protesters filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against Ferguson, Mo., and its former prosecuting attorneys.
     Michael Powers, Jasmine Woods, Keith Rose and Michael Lhotak sued Ferguson, attorneys Stephanie Karr and J. Patrick Chassaing and Ferguson police Officers Tim Harris and Sean Gibbons, on Tuesday in Federal Court.
     “We have not had the opportunity to review the lawsuit and therefore are not able to comment,” Ferguson spokesman Jeff Small said in an email.
     Karr did not immediately return a call to her law firm, Curtis Heinz Garrett and O’Keefe in Clayton. Reporters were told that Chassaing, another Curtis Heinz attorney, was out of town.
     Three plaintiffs were arrested during a candlelight vigil on Aug. 11, 2014, two days after Brown was shot by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. Another was arrested on Aug. 14, 2014.
     The plaintiffs say they were merely part of a peaceful assembly, but were arrested and held in a Ferguson jail for 24 hours. They were charged with failure to comply.
     According to the complaint, Ferguson’s failure to comply statute states: “It shall be unlawful for any person to: (1) Fail to comply with the lawful order or request of a police officer in the discharge of the officer’s official duties where such failure interfered with, obstructed or hindered the officer in the performance of such duties[.]”
     The plaintiffs call the ordinance unconstitutional due to its vagueness and the burdens it puts on their right to free speech.
     “Defendants as a matter of law lacked probable cause to arrest and prosecute plaintiffs under the ‘failure to comply’ ordinance, because defendants had no evidence whatsoever showing that plaintiffs failed to comply with lawful police orders, that plaintiffs had even heard any such orders, or that plaintiffs had in any way interfered with or hindered officers in the performance of their duties,” the lawsuit states.
     The Department of Justice investigated the Ferguson Police Department’s conduct after the Brown shooting. Its scathing report published on March 4, 2015 found systemic harassment of black people and also found Ferguson police officers “engaged in a custom and practice of violating the constitutional rights of citizens, including in the department’s abusive and unconstitutional use of the ‘failure to comply’ ordinance.”
     Ferguson reached a settlement with the Justice Department, but the plaintiffs say that despite that consent decree, Karr and Chassaing pursued the “baseless” charges against them and others.
     They say a fellow protester arrested on the same charges was acquitted in less than 20 minutes. Another protester was arrested with Powers, but Karr dismissed the charges 40 minutes before trial.
     On Jan. 13 this year, the plaintiffs says, Chassaing met with defense attorneys to depose officers in six failure-to-comply cases. In all but one case, the officers could not identify the arresting officer. The depositions cost the city $1,470 in legal fees.
     “Defendants Karr and Chassaing had personal, financial incentives to file criminal charges against and prosecute the plaintiffs in this case because Karr and Chassaing charged and were paid $150.00 per hour for their work as prosecutors, in the enforcement of Ferguson’s unconstitutional ordinances, customs, practices and policies,” the lawsuit states.
     On May 23, 2016, Karr resigned under pressure as Ferguson’s prosecuting attorney.
     “Karr has admitted that if there is no evidence to support a prosecution the case would be dismissed,” the lawsuit states. “Karr and Chassaing did not dismiss the cases, even though they both knew that there was no evidence to support the charges of ‘failure to comply’ against these plaintiffs. Due to their own personal and financial motives, defendants Karr and Chassaing continued to prosecute plaintiffs, ignoring the presumption of innocence and relying on an ipso facto proposition that if a citizen is arrested the citizen must be guilty.”
     All of the plaintiffs were eventually acquitted of the failure-to-comply charges.
     They seek $20 million in compensatory damages and punitive damages for civil rights violations, malicious prosecution and abuse of process. They are represented by Douglas F. Dowd of Dowd & Dowd in St. Louis.
     Tuesday was the second anniversary of Brown’s death.

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