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Amicus Brief Challenges Constitutionality of St. Louis County Ordinance Used to Punish Ferguson Protesters and Reporters

The MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis argues the County's "Interfering with an Officer Ordinance" provision is outdated, unconstitutional and dangerous.

Contact:   Mae C. Quinn, Director, 314-254-8541, mae.quinn@macarthurjustice.org

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center of St. Louis (MJC-STL) filed an Amici Curiae brief in the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, urging the Court to invalidate St. Louis County’s “Interfering with an Officer” law.   They were joined as counsel of record on the brief by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU). 

Submitted in support of a faith leader and doctor arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest outside of the Ferguson Police station in 2014, the brief argues Section 701.110 violates two fundamental constitutional principles.  It both fails to provide notice of what activity is against the law and works to criminalize constitutionally protected free speech.

Numerous local criminal justice reform groups including ArchCity Defenders, Citizens Against Discrimination, Missouri Citizens United for the Reformation of Errants, and the St. Louis Chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild have added their names to the brief as amici signatories, along with private citizens and businesses seeking to call attention to the problem of over-policing in the St. Louis region. 

Amici argue Section 701.110 has a problematic history.  It is a sweeping, catch-all charge that dates back to the Civil Rights Movement, when activists were arrested for expressing dissenting views or failing to follow arbitrary directives.  While other states and localities began to redefine their obstruction of justice laws and the United States Supreme Court was upholding protestors’ rights, it appears St. Louis County doubled down on the status quo, enacting the “Interfering with an Officer” provision in November 1968.

“The historical context for the passage of this provision is important when considering its constitutionality.  And we believe continuing to embrace its outdated terms and goals is wrong.  Growing out of time when law enforcement equated demonstrations with rebellions and saw the only appropriate response as one rooted in dominance, intimidation, and arrest – Section 701.110 is out of step with modern thinking,” said Mae C. Quinn, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s St. Louis office.

Amici further assert that the “Interfering with an Officer” law allows officers to arrest anyone subjectively believed to be a hindrance to anything the officer might by trying to do or say – lawful or not.  It does so by relying on intentionally broad language, using terms, such as “interfere” and “obstruct,” which only become more obtuse with the addition of the phrase “in any manner,” and does not require any guilty or criminal state of mind on the part of the arrestee.

The brief explains that St. Louis County law enforcement have consistently cast Section 701.110’s overly broad net to criminalize freedom of expression and obviously lawful actions of journalists, Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and other local activists.  Many of these charges are ultimately dismissed.  But that does not diminish the problem of the initial arrest.  And some arrests under Section 701.110 resulted in successful civil rights lawsuits against the St. Louis County Police Department.   

Indeed, the citations against Petitioners Melissa Bennett and Koach Baruch Frazier, arrested on the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, alleged that they had been “walking and standing in the roadway after being warned not to do so by the police officer.”  While their charges were also later dropped, Petitioner’s brought the instant suit – in which Amici have filed their brief – challenging the facial constitutionality of the ordinance.

Beyond being constitutionally overbroad and void for vagueness, counsel from MJC and ACLU argue Section 701.110 invites continued over-policing when left in the hands of a law enforcement agency that came under intense scrutiny during 2014 events in Ferguson but has yet to undertake any real reforms.

African Americans are especially overrepresented in situations where officers make discretionary choices, the Brief further explains, including in charging and arrest decisions.  And while Michael Brown’s killing exposed the Ferguson Police Department to the world, racially disparate policing has long been a problem for St. Louis County’s Police Department, too.  The most recent data suggests things may be getting worse instead of better.

“Change in St. Louis County law enforcement can be described as slow, at best,” said Tony Rothert, Director of ACLU. “Allowing such an agency to deploy such broadly subjective discretion is dangerous.  This is one of the many reason why Section 710.110 should be struck down as unconstitutional on its face.”

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Keywords: amicus brief, Ferguson, free speech, protesters

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