St. Louis settles homeless lawsuit

Thursday, October 13, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- The city of St. Louis will pay $80,000 to settle a lawsuit accusing police of harassing and unjustly jailing homeless people to remove them from downtown during the 2004 Fourth of July weekend, under a settlement reached Wednesday.

"This agreement makes it clear that sweeps violate the law and violate human dignity," said Washington University law professor Steven Gunn, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The suit was filed on behalf of the homeless by the Washington University and Saint Louis University law schools, the American Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. Gunn said $20,000 of the attorneys' fees will provide meals and other services for the homeless.

City counselor Patricia Hageman acknowledged one aspect of the suit -- that some homeless people agreed to community service work before going before a judge. Otherwise, she said the city did nothing wrong.

"The allegation there was a conspiracy to remove homeless people from downtown was just plain wrong," Hageman said. "We would hope that people now will put their time and effort into helping the homeless get the housing and services they need to live independently."

As part of the settlement, police will:

--Avoid arresting the homeless or removing them from downtown unless there is probable cause that a crime was committed.

--Read a directive during roll call for seven days reminding officers that state law does not require an arrested person be held for up to 24 hours. Many of the plaintiffs claimed they were illegally detained after their arrests.

--Institute a policy that under most circumstances, those cited for crimes such as begging or drinking in public will be given a summons with a court date instead of being arrested and jailed.

--Acknowledge that begging is not a crime, only becoming one if it is aggressive.

The lawsuit was filed in September 2004. Twenty-six people, either homeless or thought to be homeless, claimed police removed them from downtown and illegally arrested them during the city's 2004 Fair St. Louis, an Independence Day event that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to downtown.

Police forced some of the homeless to perform community service -- cleaning up trash from Fair St. Louis -- without ever seeing a judge, the lawsuit claimed.

The suit alleged that the defendants have a policy of "intimidating and driving homeless people and homeless-appearing people from downtown St. Louis." In one instance, according to the suit, police threw firecrackers at homeless people in a downtown park, then rounded them up and arrested them.

A federal judge issued a ruling in October 2004 supporting the charges, saying he believed that homeless people were taken into custody without probable cause.

The ruling was the second in just over a year involving treatment of the homeless in St. Louis.

In September 2004, a city circuit judge ruled in a separate suit that the St. Louis Community Court was unconstitutional because it received private funding from a downtown improvement group, the Downtown St. Louis Partnership.

The group contributed $200,000 annually to fund the community court, aimed at addressing lesser crimes such as loitering and public intoxication. But opponents said that court targeted the homeless.

Police departments in several other cities have faced lawsuits over treatment of the homeless. Gunn said he hoped the case sends a message.

"The federal court did issue two opinions that are published and now available to other advocates in other cities," Gunn said. "Both establish principles that cities ought to not engage in this sort of conduct."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: