St. Louis County Charges Journalists Who Covered Ferguson Protests With Trespassing

from the bad-move dept

Just about a month ago, we noted that prosecutors in St. Louis County were, somewhat ridiculously, still considering charging two reporters, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post and Ryan Reilly of the Huffington Post, with “trespassing” charges for their coverage of the Ferguson protests. As you may recall, we also wrote about when they were first arrested, as they were gathering up their things in the local McDonald’s after the police ordered them to leave. Here were their tweets at the time — along with the tweets of a few other reporters on the scene, including one in which police admitted the arrest was a mistake:

Another reporter, Matt Pearce from the LA Times, reached out to the police, who seemed to indicate that the arrests had been a mistake (and from the descriptions offered by Reilly and Lowery, that sounds about right). Lowery and Reilly were then released and told that no charges would be filed against reporters.

And yet… prosecutors have decided to move forward with the lawsuit, charging at least Lowery with trespassing (Reilly has not officially yet been informed that he’s been sued too, but he expects to be shortly — and a reporter has confirmed from the county that Reilly faces similar charges).

A court summons dated Aug. 6 ? just under a year after Lowery?s arrest ? was sent to Lowery, 25, ordering him to appear in a St. Louis County municipal court on Aug. 24. The summons notes that he could be arrested if he does not appear.

?Charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageous,? Martin Baron, executive editor of The Post, said in a statement Monday. ?You?d have thought law enforcement authorities would have come to their senses about this incident. Wes Lowery should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority.

Meanwhile, it seems noteworthy that this comes just days after St. Louis County “settled” a lawsuit filed against it by another journalist, Trey Yingst, who had been arrested while covering protests in Ferguson in November. In that case, the county agreed to pay Yingst $8,500 and drop all charges… and evidence showed that the police flat-out lied about why they had detained Yingst — using the same excuse they had used against Lowery and Reilly.

A Reason magazine reporter, along with other witnesses, also supported Yingst?s account. And video of the incident, posted that night on Twitter, shows police in skirmish formation approaching Yingst on the sidewalk. 

The St. Louis County Police Department, however, tweeted after the incident that Yingst was detained for ?failure to disperse? and had ?refused? orders from commanding officers to leave the street. A police report echoes the description of events in that tweet.

In the police department?s account, Yingst was standing in the street with protesters and impeding the flow of traffic when ordered to move to the sidewalk. It was then that Vollmer ordered Yingst — three times, by his account — to return to the sidewalk. But Yingst refused to do so, according to the report, and only ?slowly walked backwards onto the sidewalk? as the police formation approached. 

?The whole police report was basically made up,? Yingst said.

Given that, you would think that prosecutors would shy away from immediately going after journalists where there was pretty strong evidence that they, too, were detained for bogus reasons, but apparently “reason” doesn’t exist in the prosecutor’s office in St. Louis County. I would imagine that both Lowery and Reilly will have pretty strong defenses, and that St. Louis County may end up handing over more taxpayer funds to both of them before this is over. Also, Reilly says he’s spent the last year trying to find out the name of the St. Louis County police officer who slammed his head into the wall — and figures that now that he’s being charged, he might actually be able to find out who it was.

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Comments on “St. Louis County Charges Journalists Who Covered Ferguson Protests With Trespassing”

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45 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Aug 11th, 2015 @ 5:28am

I figure the statute of limitations are about to kick in. Prosecuters can’t let criminal trespassers go about willy nilly. I guess the clerk should have read the reports before getting things signed off for processing.

Not to negate the officer’s actions to kickstart this whole debacle.

corey says:

Re: Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Aug 11th, 2015 @ 5:28am

look into prosecutors conflict of interest and incentives in getting higher conviction ratings. This will better explain why they are prosecuting a year later. They delayed to try and find evidence they can use against the journalists, whether real or made up evidence or circumstantial.

they also waited a year, to be safely outside the statute of limitation in regards to retaliatory rules. If they charged them to close to time they were let go, and found that journalists did nothing wrong. The journalist would have solid case of retaliation by government officials.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Winning in court isn't the goal

Nailed it in one.

The point isn’t to win in court, it’s to show that anyone that refuses to properly grovel, and especially anyone that makes them look bad, will be run through the wringer. It’s to show what happens to people that they don’t like, and make it abundantly clear that they don’t mind losing in court if that’s what it takes to ‘punish’ people. Why should they after all, even if they lose it’s not like they are the ones paying out.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Making a counterexample

By who? I doubt the police are desperate enough for a scapegoat that they’d be willing to offer up one of the brass, and who exactly would have the guts to go after anyone in the DA’s office?

No. While a nice idea, there is about a zero to nill chance that this would result in anyone but the reporters facing any real negative consequences.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 In my fantasies...

A presiding judge who can no longer contain his digust about being part of this justice system demands a blood sacrifice from St. Louis County police and from the DA who elected to prosecute.

In reality this will get cataloged in the minds of angry people across the US and will contribute to the sum of outrage that causes one to pop off, travel somewhere and shoot some officers that had nothing to do with this case.

I truly hope I’m being overly cynical.

Anonymous Coward says:

after having an officer get away with what really was nothing but murder, the police and prosecutors obviously think they are on a roll and get away with far lesser incidents totally unscathed. i just hope that some sense comes into play pretty quickly and if not, the papers concerned use any and all evidence they can muster, along with very expensive and experienced lawyers to swat these cases down!
however, with the events continuing as they are within Ferguson, there could be more charges against more people on the anniversary of that fateful day. one person according to news reports, has been shot already. perhaps what the police etc are really trying to do is just whatever the hell they want but not have anything reported??

Anonymous Coward says:

Even assuming that they were trespassing, this is incredibly stupid. The entire riot/protest was a result of over aggressive policing and a failure of the police to know when to descalate the situation. (Protests over excessive force are met by police by a massive show of force and zero compassion).

They have obviously learned very little. They are just doubling down on excessive and intimidating policing. This one, they are very unlikely to win either in the courts or in the court of public opinion.

Anon says:

My Thought Too

In what way does the prosecutor get to charge anyone with trespassing on private property if the owner fails to complain? I’m guessing McDonalds is not pressing a complaint, in fact quite the opposite, I would be surprised if a large corporation with a concern about bad publicity would not state outright that they had no problem allowing the journalists to be present.

Avatar28 (profile) says:

Re: Re: My Thought Too

That’s possible, assuming it is a franchise and not a corporate-owned location. However I would think that a) he would still be concerned about bad publicity given that the McDonalds is in the area of the protests and thus most of his customers would be too and b) McDonalds corporate office would lean on him heavily because of the bad publicity it would bring them, possibly it could even be a violation of the franchise agreement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: My Thought Too

Conversely, if the manager had told them “you need to get out” and they ignored him, the trespassing charges are totally appropriate, and they don’t get a pass just because they are reporters. I don’t think I’ve heard anything definitive on whether or not that happened.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: My Thought Too

Maybe they broke the 5th amendment and decided they owned that mc donalds for the duration thus anyone there that they did not like was trespassing, and being charged under the assumption no one looks at their illegal behavior to justify a trespassing charge

I get the feeling the police know the law they just choose not to follow it as they know they will not be called out on it

Gwiz (profile) says:

Trespassing?

How is this trespassing at all? Where I live, if you operate an establishment that is open to the public, like a restaurant or a store, it can only be trespassing if the establishment owner or their representative has asked you to leave and you refuse to do so.

Did the McDonald’s manager or employees ask the reporters to leave? If it was just the police telling them to leave I don’t see how that could be considered trespassing at all.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Letting the police get away with this.

Let’s use a better metaphor. We’re not sheep.

We’re hostages.

There’s fifty of us (or so) and about five bank robbers with big guns.

They don’t control the situation by moral authority, or righteousness, but by the fact they have big guns. And if you do anything to piss them off, they’ll totally shoot you.

When they’re not watching you, you might have an opportunity to turn the situation around, to do something that destabilizes their stranglehold.

I’m not going to blame you for not acting. Big guns in my face freak me out too. In the meantime they keep promising that they’re not after our money, just the bank’s and that if we cooperate with them, everyone will live. I’m not sure I believe them, especially after one of them took a hostage’s Twinkie.

If we could coordinate and mob them, we could totally overwhelm them. But some of us are going to die, especially the first ones who take action.

And no-one outside the bank seems to know or care. It’s up to us.

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