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Innocent St. Louis man flagged as ‘wanted’ sues Chesterfield police

Tim Reinhardt, who was incorrectly tagged as "wanted" for theft by the Chesterfield Police Department and later mistankingly arrested, is pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, at St. Louis Public Radio in Grand Cetner.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Tim Reinhardt, who was incorrectly tagged as "wanted" for theft by the Chesterfield Police Department and later mistakingly arrested, is pictured on Tuesday at St. Louis Public Radio in Grand Center.

As a Chesterfield police officer shouted orders at him on Nov. 17, 2022, Tim Reinhardt racked his memory for what could have triggered the traffic stop. He wasn’t speeding. He had no criminal record. The professional courier was driving home to St. Louis when Chesterfield police pulled him over.

Reinhardt obeyed the officer’s commands.

“I get out of the car. He says turn around, put your hands up where I can see them,” Reinhardt recalled to St. Louis on the Air. “Before I knew it, somebody was right behind me grabbing my arms and putting them in handcuffs.”

Reinhardt ultimately spent 24 hours jailed in St. Louis County. He later learned the arrest was the product of mistaken identification: One week prior, a clerk at an electronics store who believed he was a shoplifter took a photo of his car and sent it with a report to the St. Louis County Police Department. It turned out to be the wrong car. Reinhardt had stolen nothing, which he easily proved – after being released from jail – with a receipt.

However, there was another factor in Reinhardt’s wrongful arrest: St. Louis County police never got a warrant.

Instead, they flagged his vehicle as “wanted” using a system that’s drawn years of litigation. In 2015, the Department of Justice called its use by the Ferguson Police Department an "end-run around the judicial system."

Jack Waldron, an attorney with Khazaeli Wyrsch, is representing Reinhardt in a lawsuit against the Chesterfield Police Department. Waldron argues that the arrest could have been avoided if police had sought a warrant from a judge.

“A judge may have had really good questions, like, ‘How do you know that the person in this car is the person who walked out of the store?’ There was video at the time that really clearly linked the fact that Tim was not the person who actually ended up taking something.”

The wanted system has existed for decades in the St. Louis region, but it is rare in other parts of the country, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

In addition to the DOJ, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell has criticized the practice. In 2019, a few months after winning election, he told the Post-Dispatch that he wanted to see the system end.

But police have continued using it in St. Louis County and elsewhere. Last year, a federal appeals court panel ruled the practice is legal but cautioned that it is “fraught with the risk of violating the Constitution in certain circumstances.”

In a written statement Tuesday, Bell said his position on the wanted policy “hasn’t changed.”

“However,” the statement continued, “our office does not have the constitutional authority to create law, only enforce it. A federal court ruled on the legality of the wanted system, and law enforcement must be in compliance with the court's ruling.”

To learn more about the impact of the wanted policy in the St. Louis region, including insight from a separate legal challenge from ArchCity Defenders attorney Maureen Hanlon, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast or by clicking the play button below.

Listen to Jack Waldron and Maureen Hanlon on 'St. Louis on the Air'

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."