Michael Brown’s 2014 death casts long legal shadow in Ferguson
A black U.S. Navy veteran sued the city of Ferguson this week, alleging his rights were violated during a 2012 arrest for ordinance violations.
It’s the latest in a series of court battles for the St. Louis County municipality, especially since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, touched off weeks of protests and exposed serious problems within Ferguson’s police department and courts.
The case of Fred Watson was specifically mentioned in the 2015 U.S. Department of Justice report, which found Ferguson routinely violated the rights of black defendants. The federal investigation began after Brown, a black 18-year-old, was shot and killed by white Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, and prompted the federal government to mandate that Ferguson make some changes to its policing and its courts.
The city of Ferguson told St. Louis Public Radio it would not comment on any of the following lawsuits.
Fred Watson v. city of Ferguson and Eddie Boyd
Filed July 31, 2017, in U.S. District Court
In 2012, Ferguson officer Eddie Boyd arrested Fred Watson, who was sitting in his parked car after a pickup basketball game. Watson was written up for several ordinance violations, including failing to wear a seat belt. After Watson complained, the lawsuit alleges, Boyd added two more charges.
Watson is suing the city for illegal search and seizure, retaliation and malicious prosecution. The lawsuit argues that, despite little evidence that Watson committed any of the crimes, Ferguson is still prosecuting the case, which signals to officers that it’s okay to issue bogus tickets.
“There’s continued prosecution for baseless charges that were brought by an officer who has a long history of police misconduct, and despite all that, those prosecutions continue to this day,” Thomas Harvey, the executive director of the ArchCity Defenders, said. The civil rights advocacy group is representing Watson.
The suit says Watson’s legal fight with the city cost him his job and his home. He’s seeking an unspecified amount in damages
Tracey White, et al v. Thomas Jackson, et al
Filed Aug. 28, 2014, in U.S. District Court
Tracey White and eight others were arrested in Ferguson in August 2014 by officers from a number of different police departments. They sued the officers, accusing them of a variety of civil rights violations — mostly false arrest and excessive use of force. A U.S. district judge threw out the case in September, saying that the officers were performing their official duties and were protected from lawsuits.
Though a federal appeals panel upheld most of the 2016 ruling Tuesday, the judges decided that one of the men, DeWayne Matthews, will be allowed to try to prove to the court that the officers used excessive force by kicking and using pepper spray on him after he was handcuffed.
Dorian Johnson v. the city of Ferguson, Darren Wilson and Thomas Jackson
Filed April 29, 2015, in St. Louis County Circuit Court; transferred to U.S. District Court on May 26, 2015
Dorian Johnson, the man who was with Michael Brown when he was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, sued Wilson, the city of Ferguson and Tom Jackson, the former Ferguson police chief, saying the encounter violated his rights. The suit alleged that Wilson illegally stopped Johnson and Brown and used excessive force against them.
Attorneys for the city and the two former Ferguson officers argued they were protected from lawsuits because they were doing their jobs. But the district court judge disagreed, saying enough questions existed about whether Wilson’s stop was lawful and whether he used excessive force. In a 2-1 decision issued July 25, an appeals court panel agreed.
Grand Juror Doe v. Robert McCulloch
Filed June 2, 2015, in St. Louis County Court
After a grand jury chose not to charge Wilson in Brown’s death, an unidentified grand juror sued to be able to speak about that experience, especially to contradict the narrative provided by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch.
“From [the grand juror’s] perspective, the investigation of Wilson had a stronger focus on the victim than in other cases presented to the grand jury,” attorneys for the juror wrote in the lawsuit.
St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Ribaudo dismissed the case in December 2016, but a state appeals court panel will hear oral arguments on Aug. 16.
Melissa Bennett and KB Fraizer v. St. Louis County
Filed Oct. 21, 2015, in St. Louis County
Bennett and Fraizer were arrested at a protest in Ferguson on Oct. 22, 2014, for failing to get out of the road when asked by a police officer. The two were charged with violating St. Louis County’s interfering with an officer statute, though the case was later dropped. Their suit alleges the law is vague and overly broad, violating their rights to free speech and free assembly.
A county judge disagreed in a ruling issued in February. Bennett and Fraizer have appealed — there is no date set for oral arguments.
Michael Brown Sr. and Lezley McSpadden v. the city of Ferguson, et al
Filed April 23, 2015, in St. Louis County court; transferred to U.S. District Court May 26, 2015
Michael Brown’s parents filed this wrongful death suit against the city, Darren Wilson and former Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson. It accused the city of treating blacks more harshly than whites and argued that protocol led to Brown’s death. The lawsuit was settled in June for $1.5 million.
United States of America v. City of Ferguson
Filed Feb. 10, 2016, in U.S. District Court
The U.S. Department of Justice sued the city of Ferguson for a multitude of civil rights violations after the city council decided not to approve the negotiated consent decree. The city changed its mind a week later, and a U.S. district judge approved the agreement in April 2016, starting the clock on hundreds of reforms the city has to make.
Harvey with the ArchCity Defenders said although Ferguson is the only city sued by the federal government, most of the St. Louis-area municipalities also charge illegal fines and fees and hold people in jail just because they’re poor.
ArchCity has partnered with local law firms and the Saint Louis University legal clinic to sue at least 30 cities for those practices.
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