The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has sued the city of Pine Lawn for using its police department as a tool of political intimidation.
The federal lawsuit filed Tuesday centers around the 2013 race for mayor between Sylvester Caldwell, who was the incumbent, and challenger Nakisha Ford, who was backed by former mayor and councilman Adrian Wright.
In the suit, Wright alleges that Pine Lawn police arrested him several times on trumped-up charges stemming from an April 2012 traffic stop, then used the arrest to discredit his support for Ford.
"I agree with a lot of the frustrations out there," Wright said. "I get numerous phone calls from elderly citizens wanting to know if their tickets are real."
Though Wright is currently the case's sole plaintiff, Adolphus Pruitt, a vice president with the Missouri NAACP, said the former mayor's story isn't unusual.
"We have a minimum of 200-350 written complaints from citizens in Pine Lawn, ranging from being harassed at their homes, being harassed in the city, being harassed just walking down the street by police. And in each and most cases, it was by some direct order or policy by the mayor as the sole police commissioner," Pruitt said. "Wright's case is just an extreme example."
Pruitt said the NAACP began collecting complaints in July 2012. When a voluntary agreement between Pine Lawn and the U.S. Department of Justice did nothing to stop the harassment, the NAACP asked for help from the ACLU.
Jeffrey Mittman, the ACLU executive director, made it clear that the organization was already considering legal action before Michael Brown was shot and killed last August in Ferguson.
"Bringing this information to light is challenging," he said. "We had started down that road when Ferguson blew up, when the indictment of Mayor [Sylvester] Caldwell came."
Caldwell pleaded guilty in federal court last week to extorting nearly $3,000 from a towing company and a Pine Lawn convenience store, which is also at the center of an allegation in the current lawsuit. He has resigned as mayor.
The four-count lawsuit alleges that Pine Lawn police, acting on behalf of then-Mayor Caldwell, engaged in a conspiracy to violate Adrian Wright's 1st and 4th amendment rights. It's rooted in an incident that took place on April 13, 2012.
According to the suit:
- Pine Lawn officer Jarred Anderson, acting on behalf of then-Mayor Caldwell, angrily confronted Wright at his home for running a stop sign just steps away -- a charge Wright denies.
- Anderson told Wright to get on the ground, and threatened to tase the former mayor when he said he could not comply because of his age. (Wright is nearly 80).
- Wright was handcuffed, brought to the Pine Lawn police station, and issued five municipal citations, including failure to yield to an emergency vehicle and assault on a law enforcement officer for allegedly punching Anderson. Wright denies all the charges.
- Wright posted the $750 bail and left after about two hours. His departure was filmed by a local television crew, who had allegedly been tipped off to Wright's arrest by Caldwell.
- Wright was allegedly arrested twice more on the same charges. Each time, they were dismissed when he demanded a jury trial and the city failed to show up.
- When Wright endorsed Nakisha Ford in the 2013 municipal election, Caldwell published a defamatory article about Wright's arrest in his private newsletter.
Ford was arrested in 2013 for allegedly taking one of Caldwell's campaign signs from a convenience store in Pine Lawn owned by the Samad family. In his guilty plea last Monday, Caldwell admitted to extorting $1,000 from the family, and occasionally taking goods from the store without paying.
Jeffrey Mittman of the ACLU would not say whether any additional plaintiffs will be added to the suit. He also did not comment on the role Anthony Gray, the city's former director of public safety, may have played in the use of the police as a tool of political intimidation. Gray is currently the prosecutor in Pine Lawn, and serves as the attorney for Michael Brown's parents.
Lou Thimes Jr., a spokesman for Pine Lawn, said he had heard the lawsuit might be coming, but said he had not had a chance to review the allegations. City Attorney Donnell Smith did not return a request for comment.
Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann