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Ryan J. Reilly   |   August 24, 2015    9:14 PM ET

ST. LOUIS COUNTY -- Two young men featured in iconic photos taken during the Ferguson, Missouri, protests of August 2014 are among a whole swath of demonstrators and observers whom St. Louis County authorities chose to prosecute nearly a full year later.

Others who were recently charged by the St. Louis County Counselor's office include a pastor, a "peace poet," a young student muralist and a legal observer. At least three professional journalists (including one of the authors of this story) also recently found out they would have to appear in St. Louis County Municipal Court.

Authorities have not said precisely how many people have been charged just under the statute of limitations, but court records examined by The Huffington Post indicated that over two dozen individuals had court dates Monday for allegedly "interfering with a police officer in performance of his duties." An unknown number of other individuals have court dates on Wednesday and next month.

It's noteworthy that so many have been charged with little more than "interfering." That's the type of vaguely defined offense that policing experts say should be closely scrutinized by law enforcement agencies and by prosecutors because of the wide potential for misuse.

Edward Crawford -- also known as "da man wit the chips" -- is one of those now being charged. He was arrested in Ferguson on Aug. 13, 2014. Shortly before that, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer snapped a photo of Crawford, wearing an American flag T-shirt and holding a bag of chips, as he threw a police tear gas canister away from the crowd. The picture went viral.

Crawford, a 26-year-old waiter and father of three, told HuffPost that he recently received a summons in connection with the year-old incident. At the time, he was arrested on an officer interference charge, and a court official said he is also facing an assault charge. His court date is next month.  

Earlier this month, Crawford came to the aid of Robert Cohen, the photographer who took the famous shot, after St. Louis County police hit Cohen with pepper spray. Crawford hopes to take classes to become an emergency medical technician, according to the Post-Dispatch, and is considering getting a tattoo of that picture of himself.

He recently told HuffPost that he thinks all the videos and social media furor have helped ensure that the police abuse of the past year hasn't been ignored.

"In some parts of the world, this is unfamiliar," Crawford said. "The police crimes are very low, police officers are respectable in a lot of places. Every police officer isn't bad. There's a lot of good police officers out there who protect and serve. But you also have some who seem to not."

Police officers in riot gear confronted a man Monday night during a protest in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of...

Posted by The New York Times on Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Another protester whose image became famous, Rashaad Davis, was arrested on Aug. 11, 2014. Photographer Whitney Curtis captured a stunning picture (above) of Davis with his hands in the air being confronted by heavily armed police officers in riot gear and gas masks. The photo gathered attention after it ran in The New York Times, and Curtis eventually won a 1st place award from the National Press Photographers Association.

Another angle on that confrontation (below) was caught by Scott Olson, a Getty photographer and former Marine who was later arrested in Ferguson simply for leaving a designated "media zone." Olson does not appear to be facing charges in connection with that arrest.

But Davis, 24, has been charged with "interfering" with a police officer in performance of his duties.  

Luke Nephew, a member of a group called the Peace Poets, is also facing an "interfering" charge, according to court records. Nephew previously wrote that he and others had been "talking, praying, listening, chanting" last August. Then "police broke into the crowd and started grabbing people," he said, and everyone started to run.

"I was tackled to the ground," he recalled. "Multiple cops jumped on me. One grabbed my face and smashed it into the concrete. I felt one of them slam his knee onto the back of my neck. All around, the police were doing the same thing to innocent people. My brothers were laid flat on the ground with automatic weapons pointed at their heads."

Nephew wrote the lyrics to the song "I Can't Breathe," which has become popular in protest circles and was sung by road-blocking demonstrators in New York following the decision not to indict the officer who used a chokehold on Eric Garner. The Peace Poets did not respond to a request for comment.

Dennis Black, a legal observer originally arrested on a "failure to disperse" charge last year, has now been charged with "interfering" with a police officer as well. Rev. Melissa Bennett, who is often seen playing the drums during St. Louis area protests, was charged with "interfering" in connection with her October 2014 arrest, but that case was dismissed on Monday. A high school student who helped paint a mural on the Ferguson movement is facing an "interfering" charge.

And they are not the only ones whom St. Louis County authorities decided to prosecute for "interfering." The number of people so charged is troubling. Christie Lopez, the Justice Department official overseeing the Civil Rights Division investigation into the unconstitutional practices of the Ferguson Police Department, noted in a 2010 paper on "contempt of cop" arrests that many federal settlement agreements require local law enforcement to track disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and other such charges that are frequently misused.

"There is widespread misunderstanding of police authority to arrest individuals who passively or verbally defy them. There is abundant evidence that police overuse disorderly conduct and similar statutes to arrest people who 'disrespect' them or express disagreement with their actions. These abusive arrests cause direct and significant harm to those arrested and, more generally, undermine the appropriate balance between police authority and individual prerogative to question the exercise of that authority," Lopez wrote.

Ryan Reilly, one of the authors of this story, is facing charges, along with Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post, in connection with their arrests inside a McDonald's in Ferguson on Aug. 13, 2014. Other journalists who recently received summonses from the St. Louis County Counselor include Tom Walters of the Canadian network CTV and Matty Giles, a New York University journalism student. (Videographer Mary Moore still faces charges in Ferguson Municipal Court brought by a different set of prosecutors.) 

A joint statement from the American Civil Liberties Union and several other organizations called the sudden flood of charges nearly a year after the Ferguson protests "a blatant violation of constitutional rights and an appalling misuse of our already overburdened court system." The St. Louis County Counselor is mostly responsible for defending county officials from lawsuits. The office recently agreed to a settlement with reporter Trey Yingst, who was unlawfully arrested by the St. Louis County Police Department in November.

A county spokesman told HuffPost that most of the new cases are "probably not even that serious." The charges, however, could lead to arrest warrants for individuals who are unaware they've been charged or unable to make their court date -- a very likely scenario given the length of time between the incidents and the prosecutor's response.

"No matter what we do as lawyers, there are going to be ... young people who end up with warrants or end up locked up because of this," said Brendan Roediger, a law professor at St. Louis University. 

Ryan Reilly reported from Washington; Mariah Stewart reported from St. Louis County.

Cristian Farias   |   August 24, 2015    5:11 PM ET

The showdown between St. Louis County and the two reporters who were charged with essentially doing their jobs in Ferguson, Missouri, last August began quietly enough on Monday. Court activity in the case was postponed until Oct. 5 as the lawyers maneuver.

It's too soon to say what that means for The Huffington Post's Ryan J. Reilly and The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery, but the prosecuting authority in their case, the St. Louis County Counselor, has clearly been busy.

And judging from the "hundreds" of court summonses that defense attorneys say were recently sent out, it appears that County Counselor Peter Krane is ready to argue that a lot of good arrests were made amid the turmoil in Ferguson last year.

Despite widespread complaints from media organizations that Reilly and Lowery in particular did nothing to merit the charges, Krane doesn't seem convinced.

"I'm not surprised that they would claim that they were not doing anything wrong," Krane said last week, according to St. Louis Public Radio. "But I looked at the police report, and I feel that they did do something wrong."

So how serious are the charges that Reilly and Lowery face in the North Division of the St. Louis County Municipal Court?

The reporters were each charged with trespassing on private property and interfering with a police officer during the performance of his duty. All this stems from an encounter at the Ferguson McDonald's on Aug. 13, 2014, when the journalists allegedly did not vacate the fast-food establishment as fast as the police wanted.

The offenses with which they've been charged are governed by the part of the St. Louis County municipal code that regulates "public safety and morals." Each offense is punishable by up to one year in jail, a fine of $1,000 or both.

But the threat of jail time is likely only on paper. In real life, the alleged misdeeds under Missouri law barely rise to the level of "ordinance violations" -- think of the kind of broken-windows policing that has been a hot topic in New York and elsewhere. A St. Louis County reference guide calls these ordinances "regulations that commonly affect everyday life."

None of these quality-of-life offenses are being pursued by Robert McCulloch, St. Louis County’s prosecuting attorney. A spokesman for the county confirmed to The Huffington Post that McCulloch referred all the nonviolent cases stemming from the Ferguson unrest to the county counselor's office.

"There were so many cases that came in," said Cordell Whitlock, director of communications for St. Louis County. "The workload was such that it had to be divvied up."

Last week, Krane had denied that McCulloch or the city of Ferguson turned down the prosecutions prior to the referral to his office. He said that the "charges came to my office and my office only for review."

The county counselor's office also defends the county and its agencies, like the police department, against lawsuits.

Whitlock said that most of these new cases against those once arrested are "probably not even that serious," and he suggested that Krane would be seeking community service in many of them.

It isn’t clear if any offer of community service is on the table for Reilly and Lowery. Besides reducing potential punishment, any deal that the two reporters -- or any of the others arrested and now charged -- might strike with authorities could theoretically address their rights to bring related future cases, such as those alleging that the police violated their First Amendment rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has set up an online form to help find legal representation for anyone charged during the protests a year ago.

Arthur Delaney   |   August 17, 2015   12:39 PM ET


WASHINGTON -- After taking almost an entire year to think about it, prosecutors in St. Louis County, Missouri, decided it was a good idea to press charges against two journalists for allegedly not leaving a restaurant fast enough.


They may be the only ones to think so. Press advocates have denounced the case against Ryan J. Reilly of The Huffington Post and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post.


But local law enforcement apparently sees more here than meets the eye -- that is, a couple of reporters not exiting McDonald's as quickly as the police wished. 


The 33-page police report associated with the incident asserts that the journalists' "unlawful actions" at McDonald's "directly contributed" to the civil unrest in Ferguson last August. 


That document, which was written by the St. Louis County Police Department more than six months after the fact, goes to great lengths to establish the presence of the New Black Panther Party -- as well as various anarchists and communists -- not actually in the McDonald's, but in the general area at the time. "Incident Command determined it would be prudent to warn the citizenry" that "the presence of members of a known domestic terrorist group" would hamper police response to 911 calls, the report states.


The civil unrest in Ferguson, as you may recall, followed a police officer shooting and killing an unarmed black man. Not long before Reilly and Lowery were arrested, police were pointing sniper rifles at peaceful protesters in broad daylight.


The two reporters, who were covering the protests and the police response, argue the charges are ridiculous.


"We've been out here discussing this in part because it's so ridiculous and also in part because for so long they wouldn't give us any police report, they wouldn't give us any information," Lowery said on HuffPost's "So, That Happened" podcast late last week. Scroll to 24:20 in the podcast to hear the interview:




Reilly finally obtained the police report and its claims of a domestic terrorist threat last week. 


"This sounds like an FBI file from the 1960s," he said on the podcast.


The police report also stresses that the manager of the McDonald's wanted the police to hassle his customers. McDonald's manager Keith Eyer "agreed the restaurant should close for the safety of all concerned and requested the assistance of the police department in asking the remaining patrons to leave the premise."


Lowery doubts that's true from his own observations that day. 


"What seems more likely in terms of the way police were behaving during that time is they came in and said, 'Listen, we're going to close your restaurant down,'" Lowery said. "And the manager said, 'OK, whatever, guys.'"


McDonald's Corporation said on Twitter that it didn't ask for anyone to be arrested. That should be harder for prosecutors to argue that Reilly and Lowery were trespassing in a private establishment if the establishment didn't want them to leave.


Not that Reilly and Lowery refused to leave. The main problem alleged was that they just weren't moving fast enough for the officers on the scene.


"Rather than pack his belongings to leave, Mister Reilly simply moved his belongings around in an inefficacious manner," the report says. "Officer [Michael] McCann then packed Mister Reilly's bag for him in a further effort to assist him in leaving the restaurant. When it became apparent that Mister Reilly was not going to leave as directed, Officer McCann placed Mister Reilly under arrest for trespassing."


One detail the report omits: Reilly said that while he was handcuffed, the officer slammed his head into a window and then sarcastically apologized for it.


Likewise, Lowery allegedly lollygagged when police told him to stop his legal video recording of their interaction and leave the McDonald's.


"While Mister Lowery did not cease to record, he did begin to move, though slowly," the report says. "Mister Lowery turned and began to walk past the soda machines as if it was his intention to leave through the north door. However, when he reached the soda machine, he attempted to put his bag down and stopped. He then directed his recording in the direction of Officer McCann and Mister Reilly, indicating that he was not going to leave the restaurant."


Jonathan Peters, an attorney and press freedom correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review, called the charges "bullshit."


The Huffington Post similarly considers the charges outrageous. "A crime was committed at the McDonald's, not by journalists, but by local police who assaulted both Ryan and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post during violent arrests," D.C. bureau chief Ryan Grim and senior politics editor Sam Stein said in an earlier statement.


Reilly and Lowery have a hearing scheduled in their trespassing case next week.


This podcast was produced and edited by Adriana Usero and engineered by Brad Shannon, with assistance from Christine Conetta.


To listen to this podcast later, download our show on iTunes. While you're there, please subscribe, rate and review our show. You can check out other HuffPost Podcasts here.


Have a story you'd like to hear discussed on "So, That Happened"? Email us at your convenience!




Ryan Grim   |   August 10, 2015    7:57 PM ET


The Huffington Post condemns the charges filed by St. Louis County against our Justice reporter, Ryan J. Reilly, while covering the protests in Ferguson last year. Ryan has the full support of The Huffington Post in fighting these charges.


Almost a year ago today, Ryan was working on his laptop in a McDonald's near the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. A crime was committed at the McDonald's, not by journalists, but by local police who assaulted both Ryan and Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post during violent arrests.


At least we know St. Louis County knows how to file charges. If Wesley Lowery and Ryan J. Reilly can be charged like this with the whole country watching, just imagine what happens when nobody is.



Fleece Force: How Police And Courts Around Ferguson Bully Residents And Collect Millions

Ryan J. Reilly   |   March 26, 2015    7:34 AM ET

PASADENA HILLS, Mo. -- “Lacee Scott?” the judge called. The 23-year-old rose from a hard black plastic chair, walked past the fireplace and stood before the table at the front of the living room.

From the outside, the house is barely distinguishable from others on the street -- brick, three bedrooms, built in 1948. Over the entrance, however, there is a sign identifying it as City Hall. Once a month, the living room, with its lamps, hardwood floors and clock on the mantle, becomes a courtroom. Those with business before the judge first check in with the clerk in the dining room before taking a seat among the rows of chairs set up in the family room.

Scott, a senior at Alabama A&M University, had lived in Pasadena Hills during high school. Her father, a former St. Louis County police officer, works for Walgreens. Her mother is the principal of a local elementary school. Last summer, when Scott was home visiting her family, a notice was placed on her car.

Parking had never been an issue in her quiet, suburban community. Pasadena Hills is small, with a population of less than 1,000. But the municipality had recently passed an ordinance requiring those parking overnight to display a $10 residential parking sticker on their vehicles. The notice ordered Scott to come to City Hall to obtain the sticker.

The city office has extemely limited business hours, however. The seven-hour drive from Huntsville, Alabama, back to Pasadena Hills also made it difficult for Scott to appear in person. Soon, the city began mailing her threatening letters.

“They sent me a letter and said there would be a warrant out for my arrest if I didn’t come back for this,” Scott told The Huffington Post of her court appearance. “For $10. For parking in front of my house.”

Such experiences are not uncommon in St. Louis County. According to a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice released this month, authorities in nearby Ferguson routinely abused the rights of residents, who were viewed "less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue." Attorney General Eric Holder said the Ferguson Police Department had essentially served as a “collection agency,” with officers competing to see who could issue the largest number of citations.

A number of Ferguson officials have resigned in the wake of the DOJ report, including the police chief, Thomas Jackson, and the municipal court judge, Ronald Brockmeyer. Yet the problems with municipal courts in St. Louis County extend far beyond Ferguson.

In dozens of interviews with The Huffington Post over the past several months, residents have called the system “out of control,” “inhumane,” "crazy,” “racist,” “unprofessional” and “sickening.” Some have told stories of being slapped with large fines for minor violations and threatened with jail if they couldn’t pay.

“Everyone’s got a horror story about the police," former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch told HuffPost in a recent interview. "And most of that horror story relates back to being ticketed for some minor violation."


Even before the DOJ released its report, the need to change the way St. Louis County's many tiny municipalities operate had become a rallying cry among protesters, lawmakers and even members of law enforcement.

Last year, Missouri’s attorney general filed suit against several municipalities for violating state law regarding the collection of revenue through traffic fines.

In December, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson said he believed some municipalities “victimize those whom they are designed to protect.” In February, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar called some of the current practices "immoral."

"If you think that taxation of our citizens through traffic enforcement in St. Louis County is bad, you have no idea how bad it is," Belmar said.

There are 90 separate municipalities in all, home to 11 percent of Missouri's total population. The largest is Florissant, an area of 12 square miles with over 52,000 residents. The smallest, the village of Champ, has just six houses. Population: 13.

Police are an overwhelming presence in St. Louis County. Nationally, the United States has roughly 2.4 police officers for every 1,000 residents, according to FBI statistics. In many parts of St. Louis County, the ratio is much higher. Beverly Hills, Missouri, with fewer than 600 people covering just 13 blocks, has 14 officers on its police force.

As in Ferguson, many of these police departments and local courts generate massive amounts of revenue for city coffers. Municipalities in St. Louis County took in $45 million in fines and fees in 2013 -- 34 percent of the amount collected statewide -- according to Better Together St. Louis, a nonprofit working to improve municipal government in the St. Louis region.

The municipal courts lie at the heart of this system. There are 81 in all. Some are housed in government buildings that were built for public use. Others, like the ones in Pasadena Hills or nearby Country Club Hills, have been set up in buildings designed as residential homes. Kinloch holds court in the cafeteria of an abandoned elementary school. In Beverly Hills, the police department and court share a building with a pharmacy. There’s an ATM in the lobby, and a payday loan outlet is conveniently located next door.

The reach of these courts extends beyond traffic and parking violations. Some municipalities require occupancy permits for those who live in their jurisdictions, which in practice means people can be fined for sleeping over at their boyfriend or girlfriend's house. In some municipalities, overgrown grass or failing to subscribe to a designated trash collection service are offenses that can ultimately lead to an arrest record.

Even clothing choices can be a target. Pine Lawn has a municipal code that bans saggy pants. One man received a $50 fine in 2012 for wearing pants that were too big for his waist, according to court documents. After he missed two court dates associated with his fashion crime, he was slapped with two additional $125 fines, and for a time, there was a warrant out for his arrest.

The ways in which St. Louis County's municipal courts have abused their authority have united a bipartisan coalition of state legislators, activists and law enforcement officials who agree on the need for reform.

Last month, the state Senate passed legislation that would crack down on municipalities that use their courts to generate revenue. That legislation is currently being debated in the state House. The state Supreme Court has also stepped in to help fix the municipal court in Ferguson. Federal civil rights lawsuits have been filed against some municipalities. And the Justice Department has said that municipalities across St. Louis County should take its report on Ferguson as a warning.

“There are many other municipalities in the state of Missouri, and in fact in the country at large, that are engaged in the same kind of practices,” one DOJ official told reporters this month. "They are now on notice."

Attorney General Eric Holder discusses the Justice Department's Ferguson investigations on March 4, 2015. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On payment docket night in Jennings a few months ago, more than one hundred people, almost all of them black, made their way slowly into the courthouse. After passing through the metal detectors, they filled row after row of courtroom seats, waiting their turn to give the city money.

Not long after court officially began, the doors were locked behind them. Those who arrived late were not let inside. Arrest warrants would be issued for the late-comers and those who failed to show for any reason.

First, court officials called for those who could afford to pay more than $75 toward their outstanding fines to step forward. Next, they called for those who could pay more than $50. Then $40. Then $30. Then $25.

If you owe the city money and can afford to pay $100 or more per month, you can skip this whole process and mail in your payment or pay in person any other time during the month. But the poor must sit through this ordeal for hours, the doors opened occasionally only so that smokers can take a cigarette break. Those who can afford the least are forced to stay the longest.

"The time that you're in court is directly related to the amount of money you can pay. So if you can pay more money, you get out faster,” said Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders, a pro bono legal group that has crusaded against the practices of St. Louis County’s network of municipal courts, where they represent poor clients. “You're effectively being punished for being poor.”

Yvonne Fulsom was one of those who had to wait until the bitter end. She had come to the court to make a $25 payment on a $1,000 debt to the city because she let her pitbull urinate in her own yard without a leash. At that rate, she would have to appear in court on the designated night every month for more than three years to pay off the full amount. Miss a night, and she could face arrest.

The threat of incarceration is a brutally effective tool for ensuring that municipal court payments are prioritized in a poor person’s monthly budget. Ferguson was using arrest warrants “almost exclusively for the purpose of compelling payment through the threat of incarceration,” according to the Justice Department report. The practice is common across St. Louis County.

At least the Jennings courtroom is easy to find. That’s not the case in Kinloch, which became one of the first cities incorporated by African-Americans in St. Louis County in the late 19th century. Today, it's a virtual ghost town, home to around 300 residents who mostly live on the edge of the city bordering Ferguson. Phone calls to the number listed for the municipal court online go unanswered, and the address for the court takes you to an abandoned lot.

If you drive around enough amid the burned-down buildings and blocks of abandoned trash, you’ll eventually see a playground full of overgrown weeds and a boarded-up elementary school with a line of people outside. One small sign refers to it as the city hall and the police department.

A University of Missouri–St. Louis student accompanying her boyfriend to court told The Huffington Post that they were “lost and scared” trying to find their way around the nearly abandoned town on a recent court night. Luckily they stumbled upon the right location. Her boyfriend was accused of rolling through a stop sign. An officer banned her and a reporter from the courtroom, in violation of the Missouri constitution. “If your name is not on the docket, you are not allowed in the courtroom," the officer said.

Over in St. Ann, one of the most notorious speed traps in St. Louis County, defendants in municipal court appear before Sean O’Hagan, a prosecutor in the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office who serves as a part-time municipal judge. On one night in November, defendant after defendant went before O’Hagan, agreeing to make partial payments or explaining why they couldn’t afford to make good on their outstanding debt.

O'Hagan ordered one defendant with a skullcap on his head to take his “rag” off. He told a woman holding her infant child to find a babysitter for her next court date, despite a warning from a St. Louis County circuit judge last year pointing out that banning children from municipal courts is also a violation of the state constitution.

After one defendant said he didn’t have money to make a payment, O’Hagan told him to “get a job” and noted that retail stores would be hiring seasonal workers “like crazy” for the holidays. He refused a lawyer’s request to allow his client to pay off a fine over two years, saying 18 months was the best he could do. “If it’s not paid, it’s going to be revoked,” he said of the defendant’s drivers license.

Municipal judges are often evaluated by city leaders according to how much revenue they bring in. The DOJ report showed that complaints about how former Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Brockmeyer was doing his job were set aside by the city council and manager. The city, they said, could not “afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures.”

In an interview with HuffPost, O’Hagan denied that his motivation was to bring in money for the city. “I’m not getting into that. That’s not my purview,” he said. “I’m not interested in revenue.”


Today, many municipalities in the northern part of St. Louis County are predominantly black. However, many of them were originally formed in the first half of the 20th century as white enclaves designed to keep blacks out.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of racially restrictive covenants in property deeds in 1948, white leaders turned to ostensibly race-neutral means to maintain housing segregation. They passed zoning laws that allowed for only single-family residences and prohibited public housing and apartment complexes. As real-estate developers pushed into new areas, they often formally designated new municipalities.

“We have extremely easy laws of incorporation. We can practically have a couple city blocks and if you have the right paperwork, you can incorporate as a city,” said Robert A. Cohn, the author of The History and Growth of St. Louis County, Missouri.

“If you had six houses and some stationery, you could call yourself a town,” said Colin Gordon, a historian at the University of Iowa who has written about the development of St. Louis area.

Some municipalities pool together to offer certain government services. The Normandy School District, for example, serves students living in 24 different municipalities. But elected leaders in many of the small cities have resisted merging with their neighbors.

The hodgepodge of small municipalities with their very own governments has long caused problems. In 1966, a law professor called Missouri's municipal courts the "misshapen stepchildren of our judicial system" and accused them of overusing arrest warrants.

But the current situation began to take shape after 1980, when an amendment to the state constitution made it more difficult to raise taxes. As property values declined and businesses went under, many of the small cities started looking for other ways to keep themselves afloat.

St. Ann is a community of less than 13,000 people that sits on just over three square miles right near the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. A decade ago, it was home to Northwest Plaza, then one of the largest shopping malls in the state, which provided a steady stream of sales tax revenue that subsidized the city government. But the mall suffered when new shopping centers were built in the area. The competition, along with repair costs, forced it to close in 2010.

St. Ann officials managed to make up for the mall's absence, at least when it came to the city’s budget. Between 2005 and 2013, the city lost roughly $1.3 million in annual sales tax revenue. In that same time frame, revenue from the city’s municipal court jumped from less than half a million annually to more than $3 million. City budget documents show that court fines and fees have been the single highest source of revenue for St. Ann in recent years.

A demonstrator protests outside Pine Lawn municipal court. The city had over 23,000 arrest warrants pending in 2013, about 7.3 per resident. (Photo: Mariah Stewart/The Huffington Post)

For Eric Schmitt, a Republican state senator in Missouri whose grandmother lives in St. Ann, the city is a perfect example of what he calls "taxation by citation."

Schmitt is the driving force behind the proposed legislation to crack down on municipalities that use their courts to generate revenue. Current state law puts a 30-percent cap on the amount of a municipality’s budget that can come from traffic enforcement. Schmitt’s bill would lower that cap to 10 percent.

It would also give the law teeth. If some smaller municipalities failed to transfer their overages to the public school district that serves their residents, they would face an automatic ballot initiative asking their residents if the town should be dissolved.

Schmitt has amassed a bipartisan coalition of supporters, including Ferguson activists, the American Civil Liberties Union and local tea party leaders. The chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court has also expressed support for reforming the municipal courts.

“I’m not sure I’ve worked on an issue where there is such intensity of support from the entire political spectrum, from conservatives to liberals,” said Schmitt. “I think that this is an issue that unites the political spectrum because they see what’s happening and it’s wrong.”

Bill Hennessy, co-founder of the St. Louis Tea Party, said that the situation in Ferguson opened his eyes to the abuses of the municipal courts.

“If a police force seems like its primary mission is to extract fees from poor people in the neighborhood, and a court system has tricks to compound those fees into very large paydays for themselves, if that isn’t an assault on liberty, what is?” he said.

Schmitt's legislation passed the state Senate last month and is currently being debated in the state House. Its chief sponsor there is Republican state Rep. Paul Curtman, who agrees that many St. Louis County municipal courts have become alternative methods of taxation. Both lawmakers represent parts of the greater St. Louis region.

Curtman is also sponsoring a bill that would ban law enforcement agencies from placing ticket quotas on their officers. “People wear the uniform, they carry guns, they get in harm’s way, and if they’re put under pressure to generate revenue for the city rather than to protect and serve, I think that puts them in a very precarious situation,” he said.

Fitch, the former St. Louis County police chief, said that officials commonly lean on their municipal police departments to write tickets and help keep up court revenue, just as the Justice Department documented in Ferguson.

“I’ve never blamed it on police. I’ve always blamed it on the municipal officials who force their police to do that in order to allow them to keep their jobs or get pay raises or whatever they want to use their revenue for,” Fitch said. “You want a raise? Write more tickets. That’s what police officers are being told. It’s from the top down.”

Schmitt agrees. “The law enforcement professionals that I’ve spoken to, they did not go to the police academy to write tickets all day long,” he said.

The bills in the Missouri legislature build on a number of other efforts currently underway to improve the St. Louis County municipal court system. The Ferguson Commission, appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D), has directed a municipal court task force to propose reforms. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office and the State Auditor's Office are looking into violations, and lawsuits filed by private litigants against a handful of municipalities are ongoing. The St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee, lead by longtime municipal court judge Frank Vatterott, is encouraging the courts to voluntarily implement changes, such as letting defendants choose community service instead of fines and offering legal advisers to help people navigate the system.

Critics say that mere reforms are not enough, however, and that the entire municipal court system needs to be replaced with full-time, professionally operated courts that cannot be so easily pressured by law enforcement and city officials.

Brendan Roediger, a Saint Louis University School of Law professor heavily involved in efforts to reform the courts, worries that minor changes will leave local authorities with far too much power to continue abusive practices.

“There really is local control, at least when it comes to oppressing folks,” he said.

Alec Karakatsanis, a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law, one of the organizations suing Ferguson and Jennings for essentially running debtors prisons, agreed.

“We don’t just need a few small tinkering reforms to St. Louis municipal courts,” he said.


Despite the acknowledgement from law enforcement and a wide range of political interests that change must come, reform still has many powerful foes in St. Louis County.

The Missouri Municipal League, which advocates for municipalities, has come out strongly in opposition to the House version of Schmitt's legislation. One might reflexively note that the league’s board of directors is overwhelmingly white. But that doesn’t mean the opposition to municipal court reform is equally so.

Ferguson has presented a battle along racial lines, pitting an overwhelmingly white police force and city leadership against a majority black population. In many other municipalities in St. Louis County, however, the officials are black, too. It’s those black officials who are the face of the movement to fight reform.

In December, a group of mainly black mayors from 21 municipalities characterized the state attorney general's lawsuit and other criticism of municipal courts as an “attack on mostly African-American municipalities that are led by African-Americans who were elected by the voting public.” Many of them lined up to testify in opposition to the Schmitt-backed legislation.

"It's not a money grab when you post in your city 'Don't Speed,'” said Viola Murphy, mayor of Cool Valley, a city of just over 1,000 people that obtains nearly 30 percent of its revenue from fines and fees. She further testified that sometimes people “have to be held accountable” for what they do.

Monica Huddleston, mayor of tiny Greendale, population under 700, told lawmakers that she resented how municipal officials were being portrayed as “kings and queens of some fiefdom.” Her focus, she said, was on public safety.

“It’s about enforcing the law, because we deserve for our resident to be protected,” Huddleston said.

Many cities with black leaders will be heavily impacted by efforts to limit municipal court revenue. Without the ability to subsidize their budgets through aggressive ticketing, some may even need to dissolve.

Anthony Gray is an example of how complicated the fight for reform in St. Louis County has become. Gray is a familiar face to Ferguson protesters and news consumers around the world, having served as a lawyer for the family of Michael Brown after the teen’s death. He appeared frequently on television to discuss the shooting. He called for Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown, to be indicted. And he criticized the way St. Louis County’s prosecuting attorney handled the grand jury process.

But in Pine Lawn, which brings in more revenue from fines and fees per capita than any other municipality in St. Louis County, Gray has played a much different role. About a decade ago, he became the municipal court judge. Then he became the prosecuting attorney for about seven years. In 2013, he took the job of police chief. Recently he returned to the role of prosecutor.

Gray and other lawyers working with the Brown family touted the findings of the Justice Department report on Ferguson after it was released. But at the press conference this month, they sidestepped the question of the report's implications for other municipalities in the county.

“This press conference is not about the city of Pine Lawn,” said attorney Daryl Parks.

Still, the fallout from the DOJ report has been swift, and reformers believe it's only a matter of time before more changes are made, however piecemeal they may be. The Missouri Supreme Court transferred an appellate judge to take over hearings on municipal violations in Ferguson for the foreseeable future. Municipalities engaged in the same types of practices may be driven to re-examine their operations before state officials, civil rights attorneys or the federal government steps in.

And the voices of those who have suffered under the current structure, marginalized for so long, are now front and center.

The municipal court and police department in tiny Beverly Hills share a building with a pharmacy, located next to a payday lender. (Photo: Mariah Stewart/The Huffington Post)

Ferguson Police Department May Fold Due To DOJ Probe

Ryan J. Reilly   |   March 3, 2015    9:41 PM ET

FERGUSON, Mo. -- U.S. Justice Department investigations of police departments in the past have led to reforms or lengthy litigation. But the DOJ probe of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department, to be announced on Wednesday, may lead to a possible outcome that would set the St. Louis suburb apart: eliminating the police department.

The investigation, begun after a Ferguson officer shot to death unarmed teenager Michael Brown in August, alleges that town authorities routinely violated the constitutional rights of residents with unreasonable searches and force, and that the city budget was largely funded by tickets and fines.

Once Ferguson tallies the costs of either fighting the DOJ allegations or adopting reforms the department will require, it may decide the best choice would be to get rid of the police department and hire another agency to police the town.

"My guess is it's going to be so expensive to the city of Ferguson, they're going to have to make a survival decision,” Tim Fitch, the former head of the St. Louis County Police Department, said in a recent interview with The Huffington Post. "Financially, I don't believe they're going to be able to do one of two things: Either they're going to fight it, and not be able to afford that, or to implement all of the changes that DOJ is going to require is going to be so expensive, they're not going to be able to do it."

Fitch and some other county law enforcement officials have criticized some small police departments in the county for aggressive ticket-writing and law enforcement. Jon Belmar, the current St. Louis County police chief, called the ticketing practices of some departments “immoral.” St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch has said there are police departments in the area that shouldn't exist. St. Louis County may stand to benefit by taking over Ferguson policing if such a decision is reached.

Ferguson officials have given no indication they are considering handing the town's law enforcement to another agency. They said they won't comment on the DOJ investigation until it is formally released.

“I can tell you that the citizens I hear from by and large –- and this is even from citizens who’ve been involved in protests -– want nothing to do with St. Louis County Police,” Mayor James Knowles III recently told St. Louis Public Radio. "Many people, for whatever they feel is wrong with a local municipal police department, feel that they have the most influence over a local municipal police department.”

But the costs of reform, including paying for a court-ordered monitor, along with a likely decrease in revenue generated by Ferguson’s municipal court, may force consideration. Only a few cities as small as Ferguson have worked with the DOJ on police reforms. The process may cost millions over several years.

The DOJ's so-called pattern or practice investigation of Ferguson police was announced in September, weeks after 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson. Police Chief Tom Jackson said at the time that his department would “fully cooperate,” with what he saw as an opportunity to “get better.”

Merrick Bobb, executive director of the nonprofit Police Assessment Resource Center who has worked with the Justice Department as a court monitor, said he doesn’t believe eliminating Ferguson's police department will solve the problems.

“I happen to believe that a consent decree and a monitor are going to be required in the Ferguson situation, and I find it hard to believe that if the department just folded up and flew away, that would end the problem,” Bobb said in a recent interview.

As news of the DOJ investigation leaked out Tuesday, some Ferguson-area activists and politicians renewed their calls for the city police department to be shut down.

Tony Rice, a protest organizer and Ferguson resident, said he hopes the Ferguson department dissolves, but he is unsure about the idea of St. Louis County Police Department taking over.

“At this point, yes they should fold,” Rice said in an interview, adding that he thinks Ferguson Chief Jackson could be part of the solution.

“St. Louis County approved of the militarization of the officers,” Rice said. “I am not fond of them.”

Mariah Stewart reported from Ferguson. Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington.

  |   November 7, 2014    6:06 PM ET

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama intends to nominate the federal prosecutor in Brooklyn to become the next attorney general and the first black woman to lead the Justice Department.

Obama's spokesman said Friday that he will announce his selection of Loretta Lynch from the White House on Saturday. She would replace Eric Holder, who announced his resignation in September. If confirmed by the Senate, Lynch would be Obama's second trail-blazing pick for the post after Holder served as the nation's first black attorney general.

Obama had planned to wait until after a trip to Asia next week to announce the choice but then moved up the decision after CNN reported that she was his choice.

Lynch, 55, is the U.S. attorney for Eastern New York, which covers Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island, a position she also held under President Bill Clinton.

"Ms. Lynch is a strong, independent prosecutor who has twice led one of the most important U.S. Attorney's Offices in the country," Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.

Obama decided against the option of trying to push Lynch's confirmation while Democrats still control the Senate and instead will leave it up to the Republican-controlled Senate to vote on the choice in 2015, according to the people who described Obama's plans. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

Democrats on Capitol Hill have told the White House it would be difficult to win confirmation for a new attorney general during the lame-duck session of Congress beginning next week, especially considering all the other competing priorities they face before relinquishing power to Republicans in January. Pushing through a nominee so quickly could have tainted the new attorney general's start in the office.

It's unusual for Obama to pick someone he doesn't know well for such a sensitive administration post. But at a time when Obama is under political fire, Lynch's distance from the president could be an asset in the confirmation process. Another candidate Obama asked to consider the job, former White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler, asked not to be nominated out of concern her close relationship to Obama could lead to a difficult confirmation effort.

Republicans are promising tough scrutiny after years of battles with Holder. He is close to Lynch and appointed her as chair of a committee that advises him on policy. Since Lynch is unfamiliar to many on Capitol Hill, senators will have to get up to speed on her record quickly.

One lawmaker in particular — in the House — is familiar with her work. Lynch filed tax evasion charges against Rep. Michael Grimm, a Republican accused of hiding more than $1 million in sales and wages while running a restaurant. Grimm, who won re-election Tuesday, has pleaded not guilty and is to go to trial in February.

Lynch has overseen bank fraud and other public corruption cases, including the March conviction of New York state Assemblyman William Boyland Jr. after he was caught accepting bribes in a sting operation and the 2013 conviction of former state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. for looting taxpayer-subsidized health care clinics he ran.

She also charged reputed mobster Vincent Asaro and his associates for the 36-year-old heist of $6 million in cash and jewelry from a Lufthansa Airlines vault at Kennedy Airport, dramatized in the movie "Goodfellas."

During her first tenure in the Eastern District, Lynch helped prosecute police officers who severely beat and sexually assaulted Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.

Lynch grew up in North Carolina, the daughter of a school librarian and a Baptist minister. She received undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, where Obama graduated from law school seven years after her. Personally, she goes by Loretta Lynch Hargrove, having married Stephen Hargrove in 2007.

Loretta Lynch Expected To Be Obama's Next Attorney General

Ryan J. Reilly   |   November 7, 2014   12:42 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- Brooklyn's top federal prosecutor, who served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, is emerging as the leading candidate to replace Attorney General Eric Holder as the nation's top law enforcement official.

Reports from NPR, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times indicate that Loretta Lynch is likely the top candidate to replace Holder, one of the longest-serving attorneys general in American history.

Lynch is known to have a good relationship with Holder, but was not well-known by President Barack Obama until recently. Other potential nominees included Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and Labor Secretary Tom Perez. White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an interview with Bloomberg published Friday that Obama would name his nominee before Thanksgiving and would potentially seek confirmation during the lame-duck session.

In September, Holder announced his intention to resign his post, pending the confirmation of his successor. If nominated and confirmed, Lynch would become the first minority woman to serve as attorney general.

UPDATE: 7:03 p.m. -- In a statement Friday evening, the White House said Obama plans to announce his intent to nominate Lynch for the position on Saturday. "Ms. Lynch is a strong, independent prosecutor who has twice led one of the most important U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the country," the statement read.

FBI Director Calls On Congress To 'Fix' Phone Encryption By Apple, Google

Ryan J. Reilly   |   October 16, 2014    2:46 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- FBI Director James Comey called Thursday for "a regulatory or legislative fix" for technology companies' expanding use of encryption to protect user privacy, arguing that without such a fix, "homicide cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free, and child exploitation victims might not be identified or recovered."

Comey said he understood the "justifiable surprise" many Americans felt after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's disclosures about mass government surveillance, but he contended that recent shifts by companies like Apple and Google to make data stored on cell phones inaccessible to law enforcement went too far.

"Perhaps it’s time to suggest that the post-Snowden pendulum has swung too far in one direction -- in a direction of fear and mistrust," said Comey, speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington in his first major policy speech since taking over the FBI 13 months ago.

"Justice may be denied because of a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive," he said.

The latest versions of smartphone operating systems from Apple and Google provide strong default encryption that cannot be broken even by the companies themselves -- as long as users store data like photos only on their own devices and not in the cloud.

Law enforcement officials like Comey worry that as a result, some kinds of data will "go dark" to investigators who need forensic data to solve crimes. But the companies and tech experts both say strong default encryption is necessary to protect users from unwanted intrusions into their privacy by governments and freelance hackers.

Comey said the FBI was seeing "more and more cases" in which law enforcement officials believed there was significant evidence on a laptop or phone they couldn't access due to encryption. It's not clear, however, that any of the cases he specifically referenced -- from a murder in Louisiana to a hit-and-run homicide in California -- could not have been solved with a traditional warrant to cellular service providers.

"Law enforcement has access to more data than they've ever had access to," Matthew Green, an assistant professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, told The Huffington Post. "We're just finally as a society trying to get back to a point where it's a little more in line with what law enforcement would have been able to get back in the '80s."

Snowden's revelations have provoked a crisis abroad for major U.S. tech companies, which could lose billions as foreign customers leery of American software and devices compromised by the NSA turn to other providers. Comey said that he was "not trying to jump on the companies," like Apple and Google, that implement encryption systems closed off to law enforcement and that he believed they were "responding to a marketing imperative."

The FBI director didn't propose any specific legislative solution, saying he simply hoped to begin a dialogue about the issue. He indicated that he wanted some way for manufacturers to provide law enforcement with access to their devices under a court order.

"We aren’t seeking a back-door approach," Comey said. "We want to use the front door, with clarity and transparency, and with clear guidance provided by law. We are completely comfortable with court orders and legal process -- front doors that provide the evidence and information we need to investigate crime and prevent terrorist attacks."

Green said that statement indicates Comey would be comfortable with either the government or tech companies themselves holding onto the tools necessary to decrypt messages and data.

But whether law enforcement has access to users' information through a legally mandated front door or a covertly installed back door, others argue that intentionally giving electronic devices privacy vulnerabilities carries great risks.

"Sophisticated adversaries" could use the same holes to siphon off data, said Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union, in a question posed to Comey during a questions-and-answers period Thursday. Many have warned that those adversaries could include foreign governments like China or freelance hackers.

"I don't think that anybody with complete confidence can build an interception-proof system," Comey acknowledged. But, he added, "when you aggregate various risks and tradeoffs, the alternative doesn't make any sense to me."

The Justice Department and FBI have been raising their increasing concern over criminals or terrorists "going dark" for years. Any push in Congress to provide the government with more tools to access user data, however, will likely face opposition from the tech companies and from privacy advocates.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a tech industry ally and NSA foe, tweeted in response to Comey's speech that he opposes "requiring companies to build back doors into their products."

"This Apple thing wasn't done on a whim," said Green. "I don't think you're going to see anyone back down right away."

The Civil Rights Chief DOJ Thinks Liberals Will Love, Conservatives Can Work With

Ryan J. Reilly   |   October 15, 2014   10:47 PM ET

WASHINGTON — The new acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is a liberal activist lawyer who has spoken out on the “disastrous” war on drugs, the “morally bankrupt” prison industry, “out of control” police militarization, and the “broken” asset forfeiture program. She has called for the legalization of marijuana and wants the government to eliminate -- not just roll back -- mandatory minimum sentences.

Vanita Gupta also has a lot of Republican friends.

Gupta, the 39-year-old deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is set to take over the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division on an acting basis next week. An official familiar with the process confirmed that President Barack Obama plans to nominate her to take the role permanently.

If Gupta is tapped for the civil rights post on a permanent basis, she’d undoubtably be one of the Obama administration's most liberal nominees. But she’s not just winning backing from her fellow civil rights attorneys and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Also weighing in with support are conservatives, including Grover Norquist, representatives of the legislative group ALEC, and former National Rifle Association President David Keene -- no fan of the Civil Rights Division’s work.

“Frankly, the Civil Rights Division is the worst place over there. It’s been awful,” Keene told The Huffington Post. But Gupta, he said, is “very different from what you would expect from the Obama administration.” He said he thinks she’s a good pick.

“If the administration had picked people like this in the first place, they may not be in the situation they find themselves in today,” Keene said.

Marc Levin, of the conservative criminal justice reform group Right on Crime, said he thought Gupta a good candidate because of her work across the aisle. But he said he doesn't expect she will sail through the confirmation process.

“Like any appointee to this position, because it deals with things like voter ID that are controversial and pretty partisan these days, I think that she may get questions or even opposition on that,” Levin said.

Lisa Nelson, president of ALEC -- the American Legislative Exchange Council -- said Gupta was great to work with. Despite their many differences on policy issues, the ACLU and ALEC have collaborated on sentencing reform.

"I would say that she was very helpful, she worked with my team," Nelson said. "It was a really good, positive relationship."

The Civil Rights Division, which Attorney General Eric Holder has described as the “crown jewel” of the Justice Department, has been without an acting head since Tom Perez became Labor Secretary in mid-2013. A previous candidate was rejected by the Senate due to his successful work on a convicted cop-killer's high-profile death penalty appeal.

Holder, on his way out the door, is looking to put a team in place that will continue his legacy civil rights and criminal justice reforms. That’s where Gupta comes in.

“I think Eric Holder’s legacy still has to be deepened and consolidated,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU and, until Friday at least, Gupta’s boss. “The attorney general has made criminal justice reform one of his signature programs, but they’re still at their nascent stage. Clearly the need to reform our criminal justice system is going to take determination and tenacity and the ability to work with law enforcement officials to get the job done, and in every respect Vanita will continue the work started by Eric Holder and make sure she brings the ball across the finish line.”

Gupta has been doing civil rights work her entire career. Fresh out of law school, she joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as a Soros postgraduate fellow, with her salary paid by the Open Society Institute. There, she jumped into a massive drug case out of Texas involving a corrupt, lying, racist former rodeo cowboy, whose false testimony as an undercover narcotics agent sent dozens of people to prison for years. His salary, it just so happened, was paid by a Justice Department anti-drug grant.

Talking about her involvement in that case in 2003, Gupta told The New York Times that she wasn’t quite sure where she got her interest in civil rights, but mentioned an experience as a young girl. Her family was sitting in a McDonald’s in London when a group of skinheads walked in. They reportedly yelled “Go home Pakis!” and hurled french fries at Gupta and her family until they fled the restaurant.

Gupta has served as deputy legal director of the ACLU for the past four years, and was an attorney in the ACLU's Racial Justice Program before that. In recent months, she's overseen the ACLU's "entire Ferguson strategy," according to Romero, and had supervised an in-depth study of police militarization that was completed months before protests in the St. Louis suburb drew national attention to the issue.

“What Ferguson has laid bare is something that communities of color, kind of at the target of the war on drugs, have known for the last several decades, that policing in their communities is often highly militarized,” Gupta said in a recent interview. “The question will be that once the cameras leave Ferguson, once the Ferguson hashtag is no longer trending on Twitter, is there going to be the political will and resolve to actually address what has been a very alarming situation in local and state police departments around the country. Because there’s no question that this has really gone out of control.”

It wasn't immediately clear whether Gupta's ACLU work on Ferguson would raise a conflict once she takes over the Civil Rights Division, where she would be overseeing the broad civil rights investigation into the Ferguson Police Department as well as the division's involvement in the investigation of a Ferguson officer's killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown.

Holder held a conference call on Wednesday with representatives of several law enforcement groups to introduce Gupta, and at least one organization got a heads up about the announcement on Tuesday. For now, the law enforcement organizations that convinced lawmakers to nix the nomination of Debo Adegbile for involvement in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer, are holding their fire.

“We haven’t articulated any particular statement at this time,” said Tim Richardson of the National Fraternal Order of Police.

Inside The Gitmo Force Feeding Hearing The Federal Government Didn't Want You To See

Ryan J. Reilly   |   October 7, 2014    7:44 PM ET

WASHINGTON –- On the fourth floor of a federal courthouse just blocks from the Capitol, two very different pictures are being painted of a 43-year-old Syrian man who has been held by the U.S. military for over 12 years more than 1,300 miles away.

In hearings this week, lawyers for Guantanamo detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab are trying to persuade U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler to issue a preliminary injunction stopping the military’s practice of force-feeding their client. Dhiab has been held at the Guantanamo prison facility since August 2002 after being arrested in Pakistan. Several government intelligence agencies agreed years ago that Dhiab could be released from Guantanamo, but he's still there with no departure date.

On one side of the current arguments are Dhiab's lawyers, who portray him as a peaceful father of four whose only way to protest against his indefinite detention is by refusing food and participating in hunger strikes. They allege that authorities in Guantanamo have withheld medical care to punish him. They point to documents that seem to show medical officials abandoning their care-taking roles and directing punitive actions against Dhiab -- removing his wheelchair and back brace, and even ordering that he no longer have access to boxer shorts and cotton socks.

On the other side are lawyers representing the federal government, who are in the awkward position of defending practices at a detention facility that President Barack Obama ordered closed in his first days in office. They describe Dhiab as an aggressive and mentally unstable man who is faking his injuries. They are also attempting to undermine the credibility of the expert witnesses who examined Dhiab and testified on the state of his physical and mental health.

It’s a debate the government didn’t want the public to see, citing national security concerns and requesting that nearly all of the arguments take place behind closed doors. But Judge Kessler denied the request to hold hearings out of the public eye, calling it “deeply troubling.” Instead, classified materials have been discussed in shorter closed sessions when necessary.

Some of the closed sessions have centered on videos of Dhiab's being forcefully extracted from his cell and force-fed, which a doctor who examined Dhiab and who has seen the videos described as “disturbing.” The government wanted to keep those videos secret as well, but Kessler has ordered edited versions of the videos to be released. The videos are classified as “secret,” and Dhiab’s team expects it to take weeks, if not months, for the government to edit them in a way that obscures the identities of Guantanamo personnel. The government could also appeal Kessler’s ruling.

In court, lawyers for the government and the detainee sometimes seem to be discussing completely different situations. They even use different terms: The defense attorneys talk about “force feeding,” while the government uses the phrase “enteral feeding” (though a Justice Department lawyer slipped up and said “force feeding” while cross-examining one of the doctors). The divide was on display during opening statements Monday, when Dhiab attorney Eric Lewis called the government's treatment of his client "unworthy of us as a nation,” while Justice Department attorney Andrew Warden said the American military has offered "high-quality medical care" to the man.

Lewis, a lawyer in private practice, said in his opening statement that his client “does not want to die” and that he “wants to be treated like a human being.” He contended that authorities in Guantanamo routinely chose the more coercive and degrading option, instead of trying to solve conflicts reasonably, and that his client was a victim of a “get-tough strategy to get rid of the hunger strikes.”

Warden alternatively said that Guantanamo personnel treated Dhiab in a “humane and medically appropriate fashion” and that force-feeding was “not a painful procedure.” A restraint chair, he insisted, was “not used as a punishment.” Warden asserted there was “no medical reason” that Dhiab couldn’t walk, accusing him of faking medical conditions. Yet he also noted that a doctor had issued an order last month allowing Dhiab to use a wheelchair until February, suggesting it was unnecessary for the court to get involved.

Both doctors who testified on Monday -- Sondra Crosby, who has specialized in treating refugees, and retired Gen. Stephen Xenakis -- said that medical authorities in Guantanamo had been inappropriately involved in disciplining Dhiab.

Crosby, who described Dhiab as cooperative when she met him, said there were a number of instances in which she believes medical personnel stepped over the line. The distinction between medical treatment and disciplinary action “has been blurred,” she said.

“I cannot think of any medical reason why a doctor would issue an order to discontinue medical items” in Dhiab’s case, Crosby testified. “On the surface, it seems punitive.” She said Guantanamo has a “system that is not set up to care for complex patients” like Dhiab.

Xenakis, who focused mostly on Dhiab’s mental state, said he saw his examination of the detainee and his testimony as an “extension” of his military service. He said he did not believe that the government’s treatment of Dhiab furthered the safety of the United States.

While the government maintains that Dhiab is malingering, Xenakis testified he didn’t think that was so, referencing his experiences during the Vietnam War. He said that he had seen a “lot of young men who didn’t want to be in the Army” who had been malingering, but that he didn’t see signs of that in Dhiab’s case.

Xenakis testified that Dhiab had made “very reasonable” requests that were denied by authorities in Guantanamo, who he said even overruled the recommendations of medical officials. He said that Dhiab gets depressed about his life in Guantanamo, but that he didn’t think the detainee wanted to hurt himself and didn’t think he was capable of striking out at the guards. Dhiab is “being provoked” by the way the guards treat him, Xenakis said.

On Tuesday, Dr. Steven Miles testified that forcible extractions of detainees from their cells are “a form of punishment” and that the overall treatment of hunger strikers was part of a “punitive strategy to deter hunger striking,” according to an account from the human rights group Reprieve, which is helping to represent Dhiab.

"Three medical experts have now testified that there is something rotten at the core of Guantánamo -- treatment of hunger strikers is not proper medical care but a punitive strategy to try to break them,” Reprieve attorney Cori Crider said in a statement. “We've forced the government to give Mr. Dhiab his wheelchair back, but they still won't promise not to take it away tomorrow. The authorities have shown time and again that without the Court stepping in, they will abuse our client, and we are here trying to put a stop to it."

As of his last weigh-in, the 6-foot-5-inch Dhiab weighed 152 pounds, which the government claims is roughly 40 pounds below his ideal weight.

Judge Denies DOJ's 'Deeply Troubling' Request To Close Gitmo Force Feeding Hearing

Ryan J. Reilly   |   October 2, 2014    5:29 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- A federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Thursday denied the federal government's request to seal the courtroom for a hearing on the force-feeding of a detainee on hunger strike at the U.S. military detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled Thursday that the public should be allowed to witness arguments in the case, specifically pointing out that Justice Department attorneys waited "less than two weeks prior to the start of the long-scheduled hearing" to make their request.

Closing the courtroom for the entire hearing on a preliminary injunction, she wrote, would be an "extraordinary step," which she called "deeply troubling."

Kessler noted that the case of detainee Abu Wa'el Dhiab has "received a good deal of publicity in the press" and that there was a lot of interest in the topic of Guantanamo Bay in general.

"With such a long-standing and ongoing public interest at stake, it would be particularly egregious to bar the public from observing the credibility of live witnesses, the substance of their testimony, whether proper procedures are being followed, and whether the Court is treating all participants fairly," she wrote in her ruling.

Kessler wrote that the government "seems to have forgotten the words of the Supreme Court" when it ruled in 1984 that openness "enhances both the basic fairness of the ... trial and the appearance of fairness so essential to the public confidence in the system."

Cori Crider, an attorney for Dhiab with the group Reprieve, said in a statement that "sanity prevailed" in the case and that they were looking forward to making their arguments in open court.

"This was a brazen attempt by the Obama Administration to shut the American people out of their own courtroom. And how sad to see the Justice Department deliberately undermining one of the central pillars of our democracy: open justice," Crider said. "This has been a rather poor showing from what was supposed to be the most transparent administration in history."

This story has been updated to include a statement from Cori Crider.

Paige Lavender   |   September 25, 2014   10:46 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold the nation’s top law enforcement position, announced on Thursday his plan to resign the post he’s held for nearly six years as soon as a successor can be confirmed.

At the formal announcement at the White House, an emotional Holder thanked President Barack Obama for what he called the “greatest honor” of his professional life.

“I have loved the Department of Justice ever since as a young boy I watched Robert Kennedy prove during the civil rights movement how the department can -- and must -- always be a force for that which is right,” Holder said. “I hope that I have done honor to the faith you placed in me, Mr. President, and to the legacy of all those that served before me.”

Holder, 63, said he would leave the Justice Department in “the months ahead,” but said he “will never leave the work” and would “continue to serve and try to find ways to make our nation even more true to its founding ideals.”

Obama, who has a close personal relationship with Holder, did not name a candidate to replace him. Holder discussed his plans with Obama on several occasions over the last few months, and finalized his decision at the White House residence over Labor Day weekend, according to a DOJ official. If Holder stays in office until December, he will become the third-longest serving attorney general in the history of the United States.

Obama praised Holder’s long career, noting that he worked with six presidents of different parties, and credited him with restoring the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

"He believes, as I do, that justice is not just an abstract theory. It’s a living and breathing principle," Obama said.

Holder had worked "to make sure that those words 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' are made real for all of us," Obama added.

Holder, a frequent target of Republicans in Congress over the past several years, has made criminal justice reform his top priority in the last year. His Justice Department took significant steps in dialing back the war on drugs, encouraging judges to use discretion in sentencing low-level drug offenders and taking on what Holder decried as "draconian" mandatory minimums.

While his drug reform efforts did earn him some praise from Republicans, many members of the GOP took Holder's exit as an opportunity to criticize the outgoing attorney general.

“Eric Holder is the most divisive U.S. Attorney General in modern history,’’ Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a frequent Holder antagonist, said in a statement. “By needlessly injecting politics into law enforcement, Attorney General Holder’s legacy has eroded more confidence in our legal system than any Attorney General before him. Through strong arming reporters, practically ignoring high level wrongdoing, blocking his own agency Inspector General’s access to information . . . Attorney General Holder abused his office.’’

Holder earned praise for his achievements in civil rights, going to bat against voter ID laws and racial profiling, and speaking openly about racism in the United States. However, his civil liberties record left progressives disappointed.

"During his tenure, DOJ approved the drone killing of an American far away from any battlefield, approved the NSA’s mass surveillance programs, failed to prosecute any of the Bush administration torturers, and presided over more leak prosecutions than all previous Justice Departments combined," American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. "Our hope is that his successor will take his baton and continue to focus on reforms that will positively affect the lives of millions, and also seriously address issues that have yet to receive adequate attention such as the closing of Guantanamo Bay detention camp."

In an interview with The Huffington Post earlier this year, Holder said he had no firm plans about when he would step down.

"In terms of my own thinking of how long do I stay … I talk about tasks and trying to see certain things through," Holder said. "I want to try to get a few things done before I ultimately leave."

According to a report in the Washington Post, those "few things" included his progress on sentencing reform, as well as the way he handled the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer.

As a private citizen, Holder wants to find ways to help restore trust between law enforcement and minority communities, according to a Justice Department official. Holder visited Ferguson, Missouri, last month and has focused much of his career on civil rights issues.

Holder has plans to visit Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Friday, where he'll complete his goal of visiting all 93 U.S. attorney's offices.

Holder has spoken about his resignation before, telling The New Yorker in February he was planning to leave office sometime this year.

This is a developing story and has been updated.

Former DOJ Civil Rights Nominee: Principles More Important Than A Job Title

Ryan J. Reilly   |   September 15, 2014    2:13 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's former nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division said Monday that he hopes young lawyers won’t stop getting involved in important civil rights cases, even though the Senate refused to confirm him due to his representation of a controversial client.

Debo Adegbile came under attack by conservatives after he was nominated to become assistant attorney general of the Civil Rights Division because he was at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund when the organization represented Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Abu-Jamal avoided the death penalty because the trial judge gave the jurors confusing instructions that a federal appeals court found violated the Constitution.

Seven Democrats helped Republicans in the Senate block Adegbile's confirmation back in March, while he was serving as senior counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The law firm WilmerHale announced on Monday that Adegbile would be joining as a partner and that he would be withdrawing his nomination for the top Justice Department post.

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Adegbile said he stands by his actions in the Abu-Jamal case. He revealed that he found out only "moments" before the Senate vote that his nomination might be in trouble and said the Obama administration never expected his work on the Abu-Jamal case to dominate the discussion about his nomination.

"I think if you look into it, it would be a rare situation in which somebody was blocked from public service for having successfully vindicated the Constitution of the United States," Adegbile said.

"In our system, you get counsel, you make your case to the court, and then the court rules and we agree as a society, as a civilized society, to abide by that rule of law. Therefore I don't think that there was a lot of focus in my participation in that defense as being disqualifying in any way," Adegbile said of the vetting process before his nomination.

Asked whether he agreed with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who suggested that Adegbile would have been confirmed if he were white, Adegbile said he'd leave that assessment to others.

"From my perspective, civil rights in our nation have been contested since the beginning of time, and I guess my vote suggests that they're fairly hotly contested today, amongst other events that are unfolding across the country. So I was not surprised that there would be some opposition," he said.

"The chips fell where they did. Whether it's politics or something else is better for other people to assess," he continued. "What I have come to focus on is that in life and as a professional, the principles for which you stand are more important than the office that you hold. I'm very proud to have worked to vindicate the principles of the constitution, and I hope to continue to have those opportunities in the future."

Adegbile, who will focus his practice in WilmerHale's Litigation/Controversy Department, said he "immediately began to consider" his alternatives after the vote in March. He said he had previously collaborated with WilmerHale when he was at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and that several friends and colleagues have worked there.

"Once the events of March unfolded, I started to think about what I may want to do next. Though I did enjoy my service to Sen. Leahy on the Judiciary Committee, my family is in New York and I wanted to find a way to have a law practice that was going to continue to be as interesting as my past had been, but also it was important for me to be back in New York and Wilmer was at the top of the list," Adegbile told The Huffington Post.

His message for young lawyers would be for them to work on cases that are important to them and not to get discouraged by what happened to his nomination.

"I was considered to be AAG for Civil Rights because of the work that I've done in my life, and not in spite of it. Every young lawyer should engage in those cases and matters that are important to them, and let the chips fall," Adegbile said. "The nation will be better for it."