On August 14, 2017, St. Louis Police Officer Adam Feaman used a large flashlight to hit Jamal White, an unarmed black man in his mid-twenties, in the face and crack his jaw.
The entire incident was caught on camera from a bystander’s phone. In the video, the officer is heard telling White that he was being arrested for violating a loud noise ordinance — for “squealing his tires” — and will also be charged with resisting arrest.
Feaman now faces felony charges of assault and armed criminal action, along with a lawsuit in federal court alleging excessive force. Feaman’s last day at the department was January 16, a police spokeswoman said.
A few months after the incident, White’s lawyer Jermaine Wooten was trying to get his client’s resisting arrest charge resolved through the St. Louis City Counselor’s Office — because it was deemed a city ordinance violation. That’s when Wooten was presented with a release form.
In order for the municipal prosecutors to consider dismissing the charge, White was told he had to sign a form agreeing that he would never file a lawsuit against any city or police department employee related to the arrest. Wooten had seen the form before and previous clients had signed it. But it didn’t pique his suspicions until it was presented in White’s case.
“That’s when we started asking, ‘Why would he have to sign that if you’ve seen the video?” said co-attorney Daniel Dailey, of Kingdom Litigators, a public interest law firm. “And that’s when prosecutors explained that ‘this is just our policy.’ Most secrets are in plain sight. And this one here was very well known to everyone. It never dawned on anyone that the blanket policy and practice was illegal.”
Wooten and Dailey began putting the pieces together from previous cases.
What they learned is that since about 2009, the City Counselor’s Office, which is now led by Julian Bush, has been requiring those charged with resisting arrest to sign the same agreement White was presented with in order to get it dismissed or dropped to a lesser charge. The policy is known as the “Rec,” they stated in a lawsuit filed on White’s behalf on Feb. 26.
In a statement to The St. Louis American, Bush said, “I deny that the City Counselor's office has been using an illegal blanket policy in resisting arrest charges, and I can tell you that I certainly have never made a policy that charges of resisting arrest and interfering with arrest cannot be dismissed or plea bargained without execution of a release if circumstances suggest that this would be a just or expedient result.”
In Wooten’s and Dailey’s investigation, they obtained a municipal prosecutors document titled, "Recommendations," which states that these charges “cannot” (with the word underlined) be amended without the signed release.
Bush told The American that this document is from “guidelines given and used by legal interns and not by the lawyers who prosecute ordinance violations. There is no mandate that charges cannot be amended.”
However, Craig K. Higgins, who was the attorney manager for municipal prosecutors until recently, testified in a deposition, “Why would I plead down a charge and potentially be looking at civil liability? I’m not doing myself any favors.” Higgins was appointed as an associate circuit judge in the 22nd Circuit Court in July.
Wooten and Dailey believe that from 2009 to 2018, about 3,500 people have signed this agreement, and they have copies of nearly 1,000. The blanket practice of having people sign such release forms — without properly reviewing the facts in each individual case — has been unenforceable under federal law since 1993, they said.
“Prosecutors knew this federal law but enforced this blanket practice for its psychological deterrent effects, not its legal effects,” according to a statement from Dailey and Wooten. “The executed release agreements are key to uncovering and remedying dozens of police misconduct patterns.”
‘The victim signed his rights away’
When the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department came under city control in 2012, then-chief Dan Isom issued a special order for officers to charge “resisting arrest” cases in municipal court instead of state court — which means going through Bush’s office instead of the Circuit Attorney’s Office. This may have been an unspoken police practice before Isom, Dailey said, but Isom made it an order and policy.
The release agreements speak to a “clear pattern” within the police department, the attorneys said. Once the forms are signed, the cases are closed and the police don’t investigate the police officers’ potentially improper actions in these arrests.
“The prosecutor never investigates the underlying facts of the settlement agreement, and the SLMPD doesn’t have to either,” according to a motion filed in White’s case, “because the victim signed his rights away. The number of incidents exposing patterns of police misconduct could be astronomical, but they are hidden in the release agreements.”
The police department said the 2012 special order on resisting arrests is still in effect, but would not comment on any pending litigation.
Wooten and Dailey filed a class-action lawsuit on February 5, alleging that Bush, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the Mayor’s Office deprived citizens of their civil rights by making them sign the release agreements.
The lead plaintiff in the class-action suit is Lakenia Mahdi, an African-American stay-at-home mother of three children. On January 14, 2016, Mahdi was holding her one-month-old daughter when she used her cellphone to record three white city cops allegedly violating the civil rights of a group of 10- and 12-year-old black boys, the suit states.
To recover Mahdi’s phone, an officer arrested Mahdi and attempted to “snatch” her infant child from her arms. Mahdi “made it clear that she was not resisting arrest, but her child was only one month old,” it states. The officer ignored her pleas and attempted to break her finger to get her phone. The officer then deleted the video at the scene, arrested Mahdi and refused to let her feed her baby. While in jail, Mahdi was denied medical care to relieve the painful engorgement caused by her breastmilk. When she appeared in municipal court on March 1, 2016 without a defense attorney, the prosecutor allegedly escorted her out of the courtroom and told her that she would go to jail if she did not sign the release form, the suit states. She alleges that she did not have time to adequately read or review the documents— they gave her only about two minutes. After she signed the document, the prosecutor said he could recommend reducing the charge to littering on public property.
The municipal judge allegedly did not read the documents in open court nor ask Madhi about the facts surrounding the arrest. And after the proceeding, the prosecutor allegedly told Madhi that if she made the incident public, she could still be charged with felony resisting arrest.
Bush filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that Mahdi’s “theory of municipal liability is far too attenuated to plausibly allege that the ‘rec. & normal’ policy directly caused her arrest or the alleged use of excessive force by the arresting officers.”
Wooten and Dailey have filed a motion to consolidate all the cases they have filed — including White, Mahdi and Dennis Ball-Bey — under into one case to address the blanket practice. They urge anyone who has signed the city’s release agreement to contact Wooten’s law firm, the Legal Solution Group, at 736-5770.
Wooten and Dailey have been trying to find the person who started the practice at the City Counselor’s Office. They have not yet found that person, they said, but they will.
“If you are asking yourselves, ‘Who did this?’ – It was the prosecutors and judges,” Dailey said. “The issue isn’t necessarily the police department. It’s how the police department gets away with what they do. But it was us, the attorneys. I think it’s important that we acknowledge that.”