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ACLU, other activist groups blast county decision to charge protesters a year after events

Ferguson October protesters
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and other legal groups are blasting a decision by the attorney for St. Louis County to charge Ferguson protesters, many almost a year after they were arrested.

But St. Louis County's counselor is defending the process for charging dozens of people — including a couple of  journalists.

Roughly 15 groups signed a joint statement on Tuesday condemning the charges "as a blatant violation of constitutional rights and an appalling misuse of our already overburdened court system." The groups included the ACLU, Arch City Defenders and the Saint Louis University legal clinic.

"We urge the St. Louis County counselor's office to do the right thing and help heal the region by dismissing all of these cases immediately," the statement said. The county counselor said his office did do the right thing, by taking the time to review the evidence before issuing any charges.

ACLU legal director Tony Rothert said that, over the last week, his organization started hearing from people who were receiving summonses from St. Louis County municipal court. 

"Most folks who got picked up, many of them unjustly, have moved on with their life and have probably tried to put the bad experience they had in St. Louis County out of their mind," Rothert said. "Many have moved, so they'll never get these summonses, and so it'll wind up becoming a warrant eventually."

Rothert said the decision to file charges this late in the game could spark a flurry of lawsuits against the St. Louis County police department.

"Mistakes were made in arresting people last August, last September, last October, Rothert said. "It took a couple of court injunctions to stop some of the illegal activities. But now, St. Louis County is charging people who were arrested illegally before those injunctions were issued."

The ACLU and 14 other organizations are offering legal help to anyone who was charged.

Krane defends process

In an interview with reporters on Tuesday, St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane detailed some of the process for charging people for crimes related to the unrest. 

St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane discussed the process for charging dozens of people with crimes related to the Ferguson protests.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane discussed the process for charging dozens of people with crimes related to the Ferguson protests.

When asked why it took roughly a year to bring charges in some instances, Krane said, “The facts and circumstances surrounding this area and the police involvement and other responsibilities did not allow them to immediately investigate, find all the witnesses, get statements, prepare reports and make application to our office.

“So that started really after the first of the year,” said Krane. The police “conducted a thorough investigation. We had to identify some of the people who were arrested. We had to identify some of the arresting officers, because there were other departments than St. Louis County involved.”

Police, Krane said, had to consider “all the evidence.” That included trying to get videos that were online or elsewhere. Officers also had to get statements from other witness or “other evidence that might be on the Internet.” After that, Krane said police put all the evidence in a report that’s sent to his office.

“We then staffed the review by the attorneys who are the municipal prosecuting attorneys. They were expected to and commanded to review each of these cases as they would any other case that was submitted by police for application,” Krane said. “Consideration was not given to employment or profession of any of the defendants or anything else other than ‘did the facts support a charge?’ And if the facts did not support a charge, charges were not issued. If they did support a charge, a summons was issued.”

Krane said more than 100 applications were made for potential charges, though his office didn’t pursue all of them. He also disputed contentions  that either St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch or the city of Ferguson declined to pursue charges.

“... to the degree that there’s any inference or suggestion that any other jurisdiction reviewed these charges or the events that led to our charging these people before we did is inaccurate,” Krane said. “These charges came to my office and my office only for review.”

Heavy backlash

Some journalistic organizations have been especially critical of charges against reporters such as the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly. After they were arrested last year at a Ferguson McDonald’s, the county charged both men with trespassing and interfering with a police officer. 

Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, right, interviews a man in Ferguson in August 2014. Lowery was arrested the same day this photograph was taken.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, right, interviews a man in Ferguson in August 2014. Lowery was arrested the same day this photograph was taken.

Both the Washington Post and the Columbia Journalism Review slammed the county for charging the reporters. CJR called the charges “absurd,” adding, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the police seized Reilly’s Happy Meal and prosecutors filed additional charges against him and Lowery for illegal betting.”

Asked about the negative reaction to charging Reilly and Lowery with crimes, Krane said “I take it personally because the purpose of my job is to oversee a fair assessment of criminal charges being brought against a person.”

“My staff does that fair assessment. And I don’t think there should be any weight given as to (a person's) profession,” Krane said. “I did note that a substantial number of press organization complaints dealt only with the charges levied against members of the press – and not other members of society. So even by that inference, it’s almost giving them – that is reporters – a greater sense of entitlement to review than anybody else, like a bank teller or a teacher or anyone else.”

Some of the encounter between Reilly, Lowery and a St. Louis County police officer was caught on video. And some skeptics of the charges have pointed to that film as evidence that the two didn't do anything wrong. When asked about that video, Krane said he could not "go into those cases individually and comment on them.

“I’m not surprised that they would claim that they were not doing anything wrong. But I looked at the police report and I feel that they did do something wrong,” Krane said. “But to parse out the evidence that’s against them and distribute it to you on these particular individuals, I really can’t do that.” 

When asked if the charges against protesters and journalists were giving his county a bad name, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said “I don’t believe so, no.”

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger talks to reporters about the charges.

“I know that our county counselor has a process for bringing those charges. And he is certainly not in the practice of bringing baseless charges,” Stenger said. “And so, how people feel about particular individuals being charged? I have no control over how they feel. And I can’t really speak to the general premise of your question, because you’re talking about emotions that others are having in reaction to some individuals being charged.”

“I do have a faith in the process,” Stenger added. “And I think that a process is being followed. And I think that process is being followed in such a matter that everyone is being treated equally and fairly.”

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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