By Danny Wicentowski
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By RFT Staff
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By Ray Downs
St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa and a handful of police officers could face a civil-rights trial should the United States Court of Appeals uphold a lower court's decision. In his ruling, United States District Court Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. denied Mokwa and the officers' request for summary judgment in a lawsuit that charges them with illegally cracking down on street protestors.
"The [plan] as written created a significant likelihood that officers would violate the First and Fourth Amendments," wrote Limbaugh in an August 15 decision. "Mokwa failed to correct these deficiencies and ensure that his officers proceeded in a lawful manner. Whether this constitutes a deliberate indifference to Plaintiff's civil liberties is a question of fact for the jury."
Filed in May 2005, the lawsuit came precisely two years after St. Louis played host to the World Agricultural Forum, held at the Hyatt Regency at Union Station. In the days prior to the start of the forum, police arrested 27 would-be protestors on charges ranging from violating city occupancy permits to "bicycling without a license." [See "Meet the Anarchists," June 25, 2003, and "Back to the Bolozone," March 28, 2007.]
Twenty-five of the protestors later sued the city and police on the grounds that the arrests violated their constitutional rights to free speech and protection from unlawful search and seizure. The case had been set for trial this month prior to the police filing an appeal August 30.
"We were very encouraged with the court's decision to overrule summary judgment, and we were eagerly preparing for trial," says Gary Sarachan, a Clayton attorney who's representing the plaintiffs on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Then we hear on the spur of the moment that the defendants decided to appeal the judge's ruling."
Denise Thomas, the assistant attorney general who's representing the police in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case or the appeal. Mokwa and the officers have until October 23 to file their first briefing with the appellate court.
In the meantime, documents recently filed in Limbaugh's court shed light on many of the events surrounding the 2003 World Agricultural Forum, which police feared would attract the same violent protests that shook Seattle during the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization.
In the weeks prior to the St. Louis event, top city officials, including Mayor Francis Slay and Mokwa, reviewed footage of the Seattle melee and discussed how they would deal with similar unrest. Of particular concern to authorities was a separate meeting also scheduled to take place in St. Louis that May weekend. Police warned that those attending the conference, called Biodevastation 7, had a "history of demonstrating, both peacefully and violently."
During one of the meetings, the police department enlisted the city's building commission to assist it in an operation dubbed the "Building Code Violation Enforcement Plan." Under the plan, police would provide building inspector John MacEnulty with a list of residences occupied by protestors expected to attend Biodevastation 7. MacEnulty would then identify whether any of the residences were condemned or lacked occupancy permits, and police would accompany him on his inspections.
At 10:30 a.m. on May 16, 2003, MacEnulty and police arrived at a three-bedroom home known as Bolozone at 3309 Illinois Avenue in south St. Louis. When a person inside the house refused them entry, the police kicked down the door, searched the residence without a warrant and arrested fifteen people on charges of violating the city's occupancy laws. During a strip-search of one individual, police exposed "her bare breasts to multiple individuals" and "pulled her pants approximately four inches below her underwear line."
Hours later, police performed a similar procedure at 3022 Cherokee Street, in which they seized among other things: a pottery kiln, sponge-like stress balls, a kazoo and papier-mché dolls. That same day police arrested several protestors in Tower Grove Park on the charges of "bicycling without a license." In police reports, those apprehended were each identified as "Anarchist."
In denying Mokwa immunity from the suit, Limbaugh cited laws prohibiting authorities from using building inspections as a means to search for criminal violations. "Upon receiving notice of the plan, it should have been apparent to Mokwa that his officers intended to use an administrative scheme to circumvent traditional warrant requirements," Limbaugh opined.
As for the police officers named in the suit, Limbaugh found that Janice Bockstruck, Robert Ceriotti, Roger Engelhardt, Luther Hall and Leonard Blansitt also qualified for a civil-rights trial for their illegal search of the homes on Illinois and Cherokee.
Additionally, the judge ruled that officers Robert Seever Jr. and Leonard Blansitt violated civil rights in arresting the bicyclists in Tower Grove Park.
"Given the fact that St. Louis City jails are not clogged with twelve-year-old scofflaw bicyclists, a reasonable officer should have known that bicycling without a license is not a criminal offense," wrote Limbaugh.
In previous rulings, the judge dismissed all claims against building inspector John MacEnulty, Mayor Slay and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Board of Commissioners. Chris Goodson, president of the police board, says his commission is aware of Limbaugh's ruling regarding Mokwa and the officers. If a jury was to find Mokwa guilty of violating civil rights, the commission could discipline the chief though Goodson could not recall a time in recent history when the board had taken such action.
Meanwhile, of the 25 "anarchists" who originally filed suit against the city in 2005, just 10 remain as plaintiffs. Each seeks a minimum of $1,000 in compensatory and punitive damages from the arrests, though their attorney stresses that the case has never been about money.
"The plaintiffs' driving force from the beginning has been that their constitutional rights were infringed upon, and they want a jury to hear their case," says Sarachan. "This certainly is not the lottery for them."
Should the appeals court uphold Judge Limbaugh's decision, Sarachan anticipates a new trial date will be scheduled for early next year.