In November, a grand jury in St. Louis County announced Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown. I traveled to Ferguson prior to the announcement and wrote about the events that preceded and followed. As protests ramped up in the days before the announcement, demonstrators and police clashed resulting in arrests each night.
One of the individuals arrested, however, was not a protester. He was a journalist from Washington D.C. named Trey Yingst, and I was standing around 100 feet away when he was arrested. An on-scene commander named Lt. Lohr informed me that Trey was charged with failure to disperse (from the street) despite the fact that hundreds of witnesses saw him taken into custody while standing on the sidewalk.
Now, Trey is fighting back in federal court. The ACLU of Missouri has filed a civil rights action on his behalf. Mr. Yingst wants to make sure others' rights won't be violated as his were. When I spoke with him after the lawsuit was filed, he stressed deterrence as his primary motivation: "I'm not looking for any money out of this, I'm not looking for any fame. I'm really just looking to see that this doesn't happen to me again, and that it doesn't happen to other journalists."
It was evident as soon as Mr. Yingst was arrested that a court challenge was likely. Just one day before his arrest, a federal court order secured by the Missouri ACLU:
Ordered that Defendant County of St. Louis, Missouri, its officers, agents, servants, employees, attorneys, and all persons under their supervision, or within their control, are permanently enjoined from interfering with individuals who are photographing or recording at public places but who are not threatening the safety of others or physically interfering with the ability of law enforcement to perform their duties.
The Legal Director of the ACLU of Missouri, which is representing Mr. Yingst, spoke with me about the importance of using litigation as a tool for police accountability:
The Constitution secures important rights for the press and citizens and the injunctions we have obtained against St. Louis County make clear that those rights include they very protected activity that Trey was engaged in when he was arrested. If Lt. Vollmer and St. Louis County insist on ignoring the constitutional rights of the public and defying court orders, then we will resort to lawsuits like this one to hold them accountable.
St. Louis County has a history of disregarding citizens' constitutional rights. Within days of the shooting of Michael Brown, the County was sued for violating Missouri's open records law. That same week, another suit was filed against St. Louis County for arresting journalists and citizens who chose to film the police in public settings. Another lawsuit challenging the police practice of arresting protestors who remained stationary for more than five seconds while protesting was also necessary, and resulted in an injunction.
Let's hope this most recently filed case, on top of all the others, succeeds in reminding police that they too are required to follow the law.