At least four people are still in jail in the St. Louis suburbs on charges stemming from protests against the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, the National Lawyers Guild reported. More than 200 people have been arrested since the unarmed Brown was shot to death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. More than 100 of those arrests were on municipal charges such as failure to disperse and resisting arrest, with 35 for felony and/or misdemeanor charges, mainly felony burglary combined with misdemeanor theft, according to a summary by Guild legal worker vice-president Kris Hermes.
The city of Ferguson, however, has actually filed charges against only 10 of the people arrested on municipal charges. It has up to a year to do so, said Hermes. The people charged with burglary and theft, he said, are those accused of looting stores during some of the early protests in August. The four still in jail include two charged with burglary, one with weapons possession, and one with assaulting a police officer, and are being held in lieu of $50,000 cash bail. More recently, about 35 people were arrested Sept. 10 in an unsuccessful attempt to block a stretch of Interstate 70 near Ferguson. “You have to stop business as usual,” protest organizer Eric Vickers told KMOX-TV.
Most were arrested for unlawful assembly and trespass, with one person charged with felony assault on a police officer. Police said protesters threw rocks and bottles at them. Court dates for the people arrested on municipal charges begin in October, says Thomas B. Harvey, head of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit organization that provides “holistic legal advocacy for poor people” in the St. Louis area. The group is representing seven of them so far, and has agreed to take on all of the municipal cases at no charge to the defendants. “We have the most experience in municipal courts,” says Harvey. Many of those municipal charges are highly dubious, protesters and supporters say. On Aug. 17, police in “military garb” pulled five people out of a parked car and charged them with resisting arrest, according to the St. Louis community organization Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE).
Joshua Hampton, 30, told the Huffington Post that they had been sitting in his aunt’s driveway smoking cigarettes. Janishia Grinston, 23, a student from a nearby town in Illinois, said she was arrested for refusal to disperse because she was filming a group of officers outside a convenience store Aug. 18. Five people arrested for “failure to disperse” filed a false-arrest lawsuit against the city of Ferguson and St. Louis County Aug. 28. They included Tracey White, who was arrested at a McDonald’s after a rally sponsored by her church Aug. 13. When police told her to “get out,” the suit alleges, she protested that she was waiting for her son to come out of the bathroom and her husband to pick them both up—and both she and her son were arrested. The people facing those charges are not likely to get a jury trial, explains Harvey.
In Ferguson, people charged with violating municipal ordinances first go before a local judge, a “court of no record.” If found guilty, they have the option to seek a new trial in the state circuit courts covering St. Louis County—but the two circuit judges handling the protest cases have a policy of not granting municipal-ordinance defendants jury trials unless the prosecutor is seeking jail time. “Most of the prosecutors are seeking fines,” says Harvey. ArchCity is ”researching and preparing” a possible constitutional challenge to the denial of jury trials, he adds. “This is a real problem in St. Louis,” says Hermes. Another issue, says Harvey, is that many defendants were jailed because they had outstanding warrants for failing to pay municipal fines. An ArchCity “white paper” released in August named Ferguson as one of the three worst offenders in the St. Louis area for deriving a significant proportion of its municipal revenue from fines, targeting black drivers and residents for minor offenses, and structuring court procedures so that defendants who show up even 10 minutes late can be charged with “failure to appear.”
“Defendants are entitled to a hearing to determine their ability to pay, under Missouri Law,” the report said. “Based on our observations, this rarely occurs. As a result, defendants are incarcerated for their poverty.” Hermes calls this a “unique organizing moment” for “attorneys and legal workers to work better at defending people in these situations.” Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, he says, has been “crucial to the legal support effort,” pairing arrestees with lawyers, running a legal-support hotline, raising money for bail, and contributing money to ArchCity Defenders. The National Lawyers Guild has provided legal observers, and Guild-affiliated lawyers have arranged representation for most of the felony defendants. “It’s First Amendment activity,” Hermes says, but police have assaulted people with “tear gas, rubber bullets, fists, batons.” The protests will continue; a rally is scheduled for Oct. 11. Their main demands are that Officer Wilson be indicted for killing Brown, and that Gov. Jay Nixon appoint a special prosecutor to take the case over from St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, the son of a police officer killed on the job. McCulloch has asked a grand jury to examine the evidence and decide what charges, if any, to indict Wilson on, instead of the usual practice of presenting specific charges to the panel.