Ferguson Protesters Sue City Over Wrongful Arrest, Malicious Prosecution

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PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Three months after four Ferguson protesters were acquitted on all charges in criminal court, they're going back to the courthouse — but this time, it's Ferguson and its prosecutors who will be playing defense.

In a lawsuit filed today in federal court, protesters Jasmine Woods, Keith Rose and Michael Lhotak, along with fellow arrestee Michael Powers, allege that the north county St. Louis suburb and the private law firm that handled its prosecutions, Curtis Heinz, worked in concert to deprive them of their rights — and to make money for Curtis Heinz. They cite the Department of Justice's March 2015 investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, which alleged that the department "engaged in a custom and practice of violating the constitutional rights of citizens."

The suit was filed by the non-profit ArchCity Defenders, which handled the protesters' earlier criminal cases, as well as the private law firm of Dowd & Dowd.

The four protesters say they were demonstrating peacefully two days after the death of Michael Brown when they were charged with "failure to comply," even though there wasn't a lawful order that they'd refused, they allege. (Powers, in fact, was waiting for St. Louis City Alderman Antonio French to be released from jail at the time he was apprehended — and charged with both "failure to comply" and a violation of the city's noise ordinance.)

"Despite the Department of Justice’s investigation detailing Ferguson’s unlawful use of the 'failure to comply' charge to retaliate against protected speech, Defendants [Stephanie] Karr and [Patrick] Chassaing [of Curtis Heinz] knowingly pursued these baseless charges against Plaintiffs and others," the suit alleges.

In addition, the suit alleges, "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 per hour for their work as prosecutors, in the enforcement of Ferguson’s unconstitutional ordinances, customs, practices and policies."

The suit notes that Chassaing was quoted in the Post-Dispatch saying, "“These cases were pursued in order to deter others participating in future protests from assuming there are no limits or parameters to their activities."

In May 2016, Karr was removed as Ferguson's prosecutor after the cases against the protesters fell apart at trial. In one instance, acquittal took less than twenty minutes, the lawsuit notes.

“It is really beyond belief that the city of Ferguson, and its lawyers, pursued these 'failure to comply' cases even after the Department of Justice told the whole world that what they were during was unconstitutional. We are going to hold them accountable for depriving our clients of their constitutional rights," Doug Dowd of Dowd & Dowd said in a press release.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at sarah.fenske@riverfronttimes.com



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