A federal judge ruled on Thursday, March 5 that the City of St. Louis’ ordinance on “impeding” traffic was unconstitutional — throwing out a law that city police have used to justify arresting, macing and tasing citizens at Ferguson and Stockley verdict protests.
The court ruling came as part of a federal lawsuit brought against the City of St. Louis by Jessica Langford, a teacher who participated in the January 2017 Women’s March in downtown St. Louis. At the end of the rally, Langford was walking in a group to their cars when police on bicycles told them to get on the sidewalk, according to the court ruling.
Some of those in Langford’s group wore Black Lives Matter shirts, and the police allegedly were “harassing” them, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri, who represented the case.
Langford was standing near the curb on the street, trying to talk to a police officer when she was handcuffed and arrested. Police then drove her to an alley where nine to 12 officers took pictures with her, telling her to smile though she was crying, the judge’s opinion states. She was charged with violating the ordinance and disobeying an officer.
“This is a law that has long been used to arbitrarily arrest people who are protesting,” said Tony Rothert, attorney with the ACLU Missouri. “It has a chilling effect on those who want to protest. It really instills terror, especially for people of color and people who are protesting police activity. This is a case about the future and taking away this tool that police officers have used to terrorize.”
A city spokesman said the city is aware of the decision and is reviewing it.
U.S. District Court Judge Henry Edward Autrey found that municipal ordinance entitled “Impeding and interfering with pedestrian and vehicular traffic” was unconstitutional because it was too vague and doesn’t exclude a person’s constitutional right to free speech. In his opinion, Autrey wrote that the way the ordinance is written could apply to “two neighbors who stand and converse in a residential street, or to persons gathering for a neighborhood block party. It applies to a single person or group of persons standing on a sidewalk waiting for an Uber to arrive.”
He further said that the ordinance “restricts more speech than is essential to further the City’s interests in public health and safety and traffic regulation.”
The ordinance also authorizes any police officer to put an end to “expressive conduct” on a street or sidewalk at any time for any reason, he said.
“Under the ordinance, persons may exercise their First Amendment rights in the city’s streets, sidewalks, and other public places only at the ‘whim of any police officer,’” Autrey wrote.
This is the second time that the ACLU Missouri has successfully challenged this ordinance in court and had it thrown out. In 2012, the city revised the ordinance, but still didn’t get it right, Rothert said.
“There is a way to have a constitutional law that prevents people from interfering with traffic and that also protects their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights,” Rothert said. “Almost every other city in the country has managed to carry this out, and St. Louis could too if it wanted to.”
He hopes the Board of Aldermen will heed the court’s decision when drafting a new ordinance. Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green (D-Ward 15) said that she tried to pass an ordinance that would put the city in compliance with federal rulings several years ago, but was met with resistance.
“The city has long known that these ordinances intended to quell protest are unconstitutional,” Green said. “It’s time that city leadership have political courage and update these ordinances to be constitutional.”
The decision in the Langford case could impact another class-action lawsuit against more than 343 police officers, regarding the police’s response to protests following the acquittal of then-St. Louis Police Officer Jason Stockley of murder charges.
The ordinance was at the heart of the police’s call to conduct a mass “kettling” arrest in September 2017, where more than 100 were maced, arrested and beaten during a protest following the Stockley verdict.
“This is one more finding that the St. Louis police department has a pattern and practice of preventing citizens from assembling and protesting peacefully,” said attorney Javad Khazaeli, who is representing the class-action lawsuit against the 300-plus officers who potentially participated in the kettling arrests.
Khazaeli pointed to the class-action lawsuit that the ACLU Missouri filed in October 2017 against the city itself — not the individual police officers like Khazaeli’s clients — regarding the kettling arrests. On November 15, 2017, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in the ACLU’s suit, ordering the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to immediately stop using chemical weapons and adopt other protocols to protect the constitutional rights of those observing, recording or participating in protest activity.
U.S. District Court Judge Catherine D. Perry stated that evidence showed that “officers have exercised their discretion in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct.” She found that the ACLU Missouri is likely to succeed with its claim that the city’s police have “a custom or policy” of deploying pepper spray against citizens who record police or exercise their rights of free speech to criticize officers.
“This is now at least the third time since the Michael Brown verdict that the St. Louis police department has been specifically found to have violated the Constitution in its reaction to protests,” Khazaeli said. “It is disappointing that the city and the police department have yet to acknowledge and remedy these rampant abuses.”