COURTESY OF CHELSEA MERTA
Attorney Chelsea Merta requested a police report filed by her client. She was denied.
In April 2008, just a little more than ten years ago, a woman filed a police report saying she'd been raped by a St. Louis cop.
The woman, who the Riverfront Times
is not identifying by name, would tell workers at St. Anthony's Medical Center that the cousin of her assailant lived in the apartment below hers in south city. At a party he was hosting, she alleged, the cop showed up in uniform and, eventually, forced her to perform oral sex. She said he then shoved his fist in her vagina. But though she filed a police report, and Internal Affairs opened an investigation, nothing seemed to come of it. The officer was never charged. He remains on the force to this day.
This year, with the #MeToo movement making headlines around the world, the woman felt galvanized. She began protesting outside the St. Louis Police Department — ten years after she found herself in the emergency room.
But her requests to access the original police report from her case have been denied. In fact, the department now hopes to use a little-known procedure called a "motion to close records" to keep the woman from being able ever to see the report.
"The fact they're putting up such a fight for what should be a simple process is crazy to me," says attorney Chelsea Merta, who is representing the woman.
As Merta explains it, the woman hired her in February after the officer and his wife filed for an order of protection in response to her picketing at the police station. (Other Blues Lives Matter supporters, too, have filed for orders of protection against the woman, Merta says, but alleges they've never interacted other than online.)
At that point, the woman had already requested a copy of the police report. In response, she was given only a two-page "incident report" that contained no details — not even the woman's own name, much less that of the officer she'd accused. Oddly, the bare-bones report indicates the case was still active as of its printing in February.
Pushing for more, in April Merta demanded the actual police report, this time under her firm's letterhead. In response, she was told it was now inactive and asked to pay $5.
The department cashed her check, Merta says. But instead of the seven days she was initially quoted, staffers suddenly said they'd need more time. And then, on Wednesday, she was emailed docketing information showing the department had filed a petition in St. Louis City Circuit Court, asking a judge to issue an order saying the records should be kept from her.
City Counselor Julian Bush says he is not aware of the particulars of Merta's case. However, he says, the maneuver is a procedure outlined in Missouri law.
"We have the right to ask a court to do this," he says. "It will up to the city to prove in court that the facts they're alleging are true." If so, the judge could order the reports sealed.
At this point, the facts being alleged are a bit vague. The city's petition says only that "the safety of witnesses and other individuals cannot be reasonably ensured should an unedited and unaltered copy of the PD’s police report be released."
As the legal justification for its request, the police department cites part of the law that reads as follows:
To compel investigators to reveal contents of their investigative reports before the culmination of the investigation and, when appropriate, the prosecution, could result in compromising the investigation and prosecution by disclosing the status of the investigation, jeopardizing witnesses, aid the guilty in the destruction of yet undiscovered evidence, promote fabricated evidence by the guilty party, and foster other inhibiting consequences. News-Press and Gazzette Co. v. Cathcart, 974 S.W.2d 576, 579 (Mo. App. W.D. 1998) (footnote 3).
But as Merta notes, the investigation appears to have already culminated — no one believes the department is still investigating. Beyond that, if they're worried about "the safety of witnesses," why not just redact those details?
Merta says she is hoping for a court date next week to argue that the file should be open — a decision that will now be up to a St. Louis Circuit Court judge.
"I have difficulty believing that a judge would want to set the precedent that victims cannot obtain copies of their own police reports," she says.
In the three months that Merta has represented the woman, she's tracked down the order of protection she filed against the officer in 2008, as well as her hospital records. They show that nurses found bruising to the woman's upper and lower lip, the bridge of her nose, and her posterior neck. However, a rape kit could not be performed because, in addition to urinating and brushing her teeth since the incident, the woman had gotten her period.
Even though ten years have passed since the incident, Merta says everything the woman told her matches what's recorded in the documents. "Sometimes clients exaggerate, or distort facts," she acknowledges. "That has not been the case with this woman. She has been telling the same story since 2008."
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