On October 5, a judge ruled that the St. Louis County Police Department's policy of making arrests without warrants did not violate the constitutional rights of suspects. But one month earlier, in September, the department quietly moved to change its internal policies — and did away with the practice when it comes to misdemeanor offenses.
"Officers shall only place a wanted on a suspect for felony crimes," the new policy reads. "Wanteds shall not be utilized for ordinance violations or misdemeanor crimes."
The policy change was first reported by Missouri Lawyers Weekly.
(Its story is behind a paywall
In the parlance of the legal justice system, a "wanted" functions similarly to a warrant, with one crucial difference: An officer can issue a "wanted" for a suspect's arrest — and unlike a warrant, it doesn't require a judge's approval.
The practice gave cops the power to essentially make warrantless arrests, and in St. Louis County, the practice came under fire in 2016 with a federal lawsuit from ArchCity Defenders. The lawsuit sought class-action status for anyone arrested on a wanted in the last five years. The civil rights law firm estimated the number was in the hundreds.
And that initial estimate proved to be way off. The police eventually released documents indicating the department had issued wanteds for around 15,000
people from 2011 through 2016. Those wanteds led to some 2,500 arrests.
Each arrest allowed the department to detain a suspect, and the lawsuit contended that those people had suffered the loss of liberty that usually comes with an arrest, but without the protections that come with a warrant that's passed through a judge's office.
In Ferguson, the wanteds policy was featured in a scathing 2015 report
from the U.S. Department of Justice, which labeled it an "end-run around the judicial system."
But in St. Louis County, U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey granted summary judgment to the police department in response to ArchCity's lawsuit, ruling against the plaintiffs and their lawyers on October 5.
Central to the judge's ruling was his finding that two officers listed as defendants hadn't issued wanteds out of thin air, as "the wanteds in question were based on probable cause."
Still, it's important to note that the officers who actually arrested those plaintiffs didn't know what that probable cause was; they had simply run the suspects' names through the system, seen the wanted bulletin, and then made the arrest. And that was OK, the judge ruled.
"[A] wanted based on probable cause that a subject committed some offense is sufficient to support a warrantless arrest for that offense," Autrey wrote, "even though the wanted lacks a description of the circumstances and facts supporting probable cause."
But even though St. Louis County prevailed in the lawsuit, department brass had apparently already decided to update its wanteds policy. In a general order dated September 4, the department specified that wanteds should only be used for felony cases.
In a statement to Missouri Lawyers Weekly
's Nicholas Phillips, Police Spokesman Sgt. Shawn McGuire said he didn't know whether the policy change was connected to the lawsuit, or if the change was already in the works before that.
And for now, apparently, the wanteds system remains in place for felonies.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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