DOJ Files Civil Rights Suit Against Ferguson

By Kenrya Rankin Feb 11, 2016

On Tuesday (February 9), Ferguson City Council members failed to approve a previously negotiated agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that was set to completely overhaul the Missouri town’s justice system. Yesterday, the DOJ pushed back.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch held a press conference to announce that her agency had filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Ferguson for essentially reneging on the agreed upon consent decree. Lynch detailed the rationale behind the DOJ’s suit:

Nearly a year ago, the Department of Justice released our findings in an investigation of the Police Department of Ferguson, Missouri. Our investigation uncovered a community in distress, in which residents felt alienated from their own police force. The Ferguson Police Department’s violations were expansive and deliberate. They violated the Fourth Amendment by stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without cause and using unreasonable force. They made enforcement decisions based on the way individuals expressed themselves and unnecessarily escalated non-threatening situations. These violations were not only egregious—they were routine. They were encouraged by the city in the interest of raising revenue. They were driven, at least in part, by racial bias and occurred disproportionately against African-American residents. And they were profoundly and fundamentally unconstitutional. These findings were based upon information received from Ferguson’s own citizens, from Ferguson’s own records and from Ferguson’s own officials. And they demonstrated a clear pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution and federal law.

After announcing our findings one year ago, we began negotiations with the city of Ferguson on a court-enforceable consent decree that would bring about necessary police and court reform. From the outset, we made clear that our goal was to reach an agreement to avoid litigation. But we also made clear that if there was no agreement, we would be forced to go to court to protect the rights of Ferguson residents. Painstaking negotiations lasted more than 26 weeks as we sought to remedy literally years of systematic deficiencies. A few weeks ago, the Department of Justice and Ferguson’s own negotiators came to an agreement that was both fair and cost-effective—and that would provide all the residents of Ferguson the constitutional and effective policing and court practices guaranteed to all Americans. As agreed, it was presented to the Ferguson City Council for approval or rejection. And last night, the city council rejected the consent decree approved by their own negotiators. Their decision leaves us no further choice.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, and it alleges crimes that fall under Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI). Specifically it, charges that the law enforcement and municipal courts in Ferguson:

  • Conduct illegal stops, searches and arrests, and use excessive force (violation of the Fourth Amendment)
  • Obstruct citizens’ freedom of expression (violation of the First Amendment)
  • Skirt due process and equal protection when prosecuting charges (violation of the 14th Amendment)
  • Employ discriminatory bias against African Americans citizens (violation of the 14th Amendment and federal statutory law)

“We intend to aggressively prosecute this case and I have no doubt that we will prevail,” Lynch said at the press conference.