Public Safety & Justice

Judge Drops Ferguson Protesters' Lawsuit Against Police

by | October 4, 2016

By Robert Patrick

A federal judge has dismissed a civil rights lawsuit that alleged police used excessive force against Ferguson protesters and violated their civil rights.

U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey on Friday ruled in favor of summary judgment motions filed by police, police officials, St. Louis County and the city of Ferguson. The order appeared publicly in electronic court files Monday, the same day that lawyers for protesters filed a notice that they would appeal.

In his order, Autrey said that the protesters who filed the suit "have completely failed to present any credible evidence that any of the actions taken by these individuals were taken with malice or were committed in bad faith."

Autrey wrote that protesters were told to disperse, and when they did not and officers were ordered to begin making arrests, those officers gave repeated warnings before they started arresting protesters.

Autrey ruled that individual police officers were "entitled to official and qualified immunity" from the lawsuit, and therefore their supervisors and St. Louis County were also entitled to immunity.

In ruling for police on the summary judgment motion, Autrey had to view the evidence "in the light most favorable" to the plaintiffs and find that "no genuine issue of material fact exists and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."

Autrey ruled that many of the plaintiffs' claims were not backed up by video evidence or other testimony.

Tracey White, one of the plaintiffs, had alleged that she and her 17-year-old son were arrested inside of the Ferguson McDonald's. She claimed officers with rifles rushed in "like something out of a movie." She claimed that she was thrown to the ground and arrested when she protested the treatment of her son, who she claimed was arrested when she tried to give him the iPad she was carrying.

But videos showed that she was actually arrested a block away. "She agreed that video showed an officer placing hand ties on her, and that she was not on the ground, and that there was no knee in her back," Autrey wrote. "No racial epithets or slurs were used against Tracey White."

Another plaintiff, Dwayne A. Matthews Jr., had claimed that he was walking to his mother's house on Aug. 13 when he was shot with rubber-coated bullets, pepper-sprayed and nearly drowned in a drainage ditch before being beaten before and after he was restrained.

But Autrey wrote that Matthews' "own statements (to paramedics and hospital staff) belie his position."

Plaintiffs Damon Coleman and Theophilus Green claimed that they were hit by less-than-lethal projectiles fired by three officers, Autrey found, but were unable to contradict statements by those officers that they were not carrying such equipment that night.

Other plaintiffs were unable to identify the officers that they claimed committed violations, Autrey found, or were not hurt during the encounters.

Gregory Lattimer, one of the lawyers representing protesters, said in a telephone interview Monday: "It's unfortunate that the Constitution has such a rough time in Missouri, but I think that the court of appeals will look at this and make a determination that ... the judge's refusal to allow these cases to go forward was not consistent with applicable law.

"This is summary judgment and a jury should have been able to decide whether or not these actions were OK," he said.

Lattimer characterized White's claims about McDonald's as a "mix up" and said people were "taken out of the McDonald's" and then "moved up and down the street illegally." He said, "Well, you took them out of the restaurant, put them on the street, and then tell them they failed to disperse."

He called issues created by his clients' inability to identify police officers one of the "most disturbing aspects," noting that officers wore masks and took off their badges. "They obscure their identity and then because you can't identify them, then the officer goes free. That is not the way it is supposed to work."

St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane called it a "well-considered opinion" but declined to comment in detail.

The original $41.5 million lawsuit was filed Aug. 28, 2014, by protesters who variously alleged that they were pepper-sprayed, shot with rubber bullets, beaten and arrested. It was amended to add more plaintiffs that October.

This year, lawyers for the police filed motions to dismiss, claiming that much of what had been alleged was incorrect.

The arrests were among hundreds during protests that followed the Aug. 9, 2014, fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.

(c)2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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