Photo by Danny Wicentowski
Protesters gathered outside the Ferguson Police Department on September 26, 2014.
During the Ferguson protests, police repeatedly turned to a convenient, versatile charge they could use to lock up protesters who otherwise didn't seem to be breaking any laws.
"Interfering with an Officer, Unlawful" is the catch-all section of a St. Louis County ordinance that forbids people from obstructing a police officer's work "in any manner whatsoever."
Maggie Ellinger-Locke of the National Lawyers Guild argued this morning in front the Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals that the county ordinance is unconstitutional, violating the rights to free speech and due process.
"It's critical that we enshrine the right to protest," Ellinger-Locke told the three-judge panel of the state appellate court.
Hundreds of protesters have been charged under the ordinance. Yet it's written so broadly, the attorney says, that police could arrest people just for angering police. She gives the hypothetical example of lawyers calling out legal advice to someone being taken into custody. As soon as officers decide official duties are being interfered with, they can make an arrest.
"This ordinance is absolutely unconstitutional, and I think the case law bears that out," Ellinger-Locke says.
Although the case began with the unrest in Ferguson three years ago, using controversial ordinances to charge protesters has come up again with a new wave of demonstrations following the acquittal of ex-St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley. During the first weekend, police blasted protesters for vandalism and allegedly assaulting officers, but the vast majority of those arrested were charged with failing to disperse, a violation of a municipal ordinance that relies heavily on police interpretation.
The appellate case that was argued this morning dates back to 2015 when Ellinger-Locke and attorney Brendan Roediger of the Saint Louis University Law Civil Litigation Clinic sued the county, county Counselor Peter Krane and then-Attorney General Chris Koster on behalf of the Rev. Melissa Bennett and audiologist Koach Baruch Frazier, who were arrested during a 2014 protest outside the Ferguson Police Department. The lawyers argued the language of the ordinance was unconstitutional and should be removed from the books.
Circuit Court Judge Gloria Reno ruled against them in February, saying in her decision that the terms were clear, commonly understood and legal. The attorneys appealed, and Ellinger-Locke presented the case this morning in the courtroom inside the Old Post Office on Olive Street.
Attorney Carl Becker, representing the county, argued that no one is getting locked up simply for saying the wrong thing to a cop. He told the judges that the interference is paired with conduct and isn't meant to stifle free speech. To make his point, he suggested a scenario of an officer prevented from rendering first aid because someone is screaming in his ear, keeping him from communicating with a patient.
"The Supreme Court recognized that you have to draw the line somewhere," he told the judges.
Each side had fifteen minutes for their oral arguments while the judges asked questions. There is no schedule for a decision.
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