(NEW YORK) — The city of Ferguson, Missouri, particularly its police force, has been under the national spotlight since August 2014, when an officer fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown and sparked a national debate on race in America.
Now the city is feeling heat from the federal government like never before, with the Justice Department announcing Wednesday that it was filing a lawsuit in U.S. court and urging a federal judge to force the city to revamp its police department and court system.
In announcing the lawsuit, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch accused Ferguson of engaging in racially-driven policing and law enforcement “that violates the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.”
But exactly how has Ferguson violated those key constitutional amendments, in the Justice Department’s view?
Here’s a quick look at some of what the 56-page lawsuit alleges:
FIRST AMENDMENT – Freedom of religion, speech and the press.
The lawsuit says Ferguson police officers “routinely prohibit people from recording police activity, and retaliate against those who do record.” In one instance from June 2014, a mother was arrested “ostensibly” for a traffic violation after she began videotaping her husband’s arrest in front of their children and then continued to record from her car as the police vehicle drove off with her husband. “[N]obody videotapes me,” the officer insisted.
Officers sometimes “offer no rationale at all for interfering with individuals’ right to record,” the lawsuit alleges. In October 2013, one officer threatened to arrest a civilian who was taking a picture of the officer. “Do I not have the right to record?” the civilian asked. “No, you don’t,” replied the officer, who then arrested the civilian for Failure to Comply.
Officers often use their authority to arrest people who use “offensive, but lawful, language” to criticize police conduct, according to the lawsuit.
FOURTH AMENDMENT – “The right of the people to be secure in their persons” and free from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” including excessive force.
The lawsuit says Ferguson officers conduct stops, issue citations and make arrests without legal justification. In October 2012, police officers pulled over an African-American man, claiming his passenger-side brake light was broken. The man had recently replaced the light, but the officers refused to let him show them it was working, instead issuing him a citation for “tail light/reflector/license plate light out.” The man went to the police station that evening to show officers there that his brake light was working.
Ferguson officers engage in a pattern of searching individuals without legal justification, and this “disproportionately impacts African-Americans, who are searched at higher rates than others, but who have contraband found on them significantly less often than others,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit says Ferguson police officers “routinely escalate encounters with individuals they perceive to be disobedient, and unreasonably use canines on unarmed subjects, including young juveniles.” In December 2011, for example, a 14-year-old African-American boy was skipping school and waiting in an abandoned house for his friends. When officers arrived at the scene, the boy refused to come out. Even though officers had no reason to believe the boy might be armed, they deployed a canine to bite the boy, causing puncture wounds in his arm.
14th AMENDMENT – The right to “due process of law” and “equal protection” under the law.
The lawsuit says the Ferguson court system “routinely” fails to provide residents who have received citations or summons with “adequate notice of the allegations made against them” or any “meaningful opportunity to be heard.” Sometimes, such residents are provided wholly incorrect information about where and when their cases are being heard, according to the lawsuit. “They are often unable to determine how much is owed, where and how to pay the ticket, what the options for payment are, what rights the individual has, and what the consequences are for various actions or oversights,” the lawsuit alleges.
Similarly, Ferguson residents who have been arrested “are sometimes not provided clear information regarding the charges against them,” and the court’s bond procedures “are arbitrary and confusing.”
Prosecutors fail to disclose information that could help defendants fighting the charges against them, “despite the constitutional duty to disclose such evidence,” the lawsuit says. In some cases, defendants have not been told that the Ferguson officer testifying in the case against them “was previously found to be untruthful during an official [Ferguson police] investigation,” according to the lawsuit.
Overall, the lawsuit says, these practices “disproportionately harm African-Americans,” and they “are not the necessary or unavoidable results of legitimate public safety efforts.”
“Rather, the disproportionate harm to African-Americans stems, at least in part, from racial bias, including racial stereotyping,” the lawsuit alleges.
The Justice Department decided to file the lawsuit after Ferguson’s City Council Tuesday night rejected a long-negotiated deal to overhaul the police department and court system. In explaining its decision, the council cited the enormous cost to the city to make some of the proposed changes.
“Our goal was always to reach an agreement that we can implement and sustain with the resources we have in this small town,” one councilman said after hearing of the lawsuit. “We accepted just about everything that was asked us and spent a lot of time trying to get this [deal] to work within our limited means, and in the end they didn’t care at all whether we could actually accomplish what’s in the agreement as long as we just signed it.”
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