A federal judge ruled on Monday that the police in Ferguson, Missouri violated protesters’ constitutional rights by forcing them to keep moving or risk arrest.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry issued a preliminary injunction (pdf) against officers to prevent them from enforcing the tactic dubbed by the ACLU of Missouri as the “five-second rule,” which plaintiffs said was used to target people standing still, “walking too slowly,” or walking back and forth in the same area. ACLU-MO had sued (pdf) to stop the practice.
“The rule of law is essential to our constitutional system of government, and it applies equally to law enforcement officers and to other citizens,” Judge Perry wrote in her ruling.
St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar testified that the rule was only intended to be used when crowds failed to disperse or grew large and unruly, which he said mostly happened at night—but plaintiffs and witnesses said that on many occasions, officers approached small groups of people standing on sidewalks during the day and threatened to arrest them if they did not keep moving.
“Vague rules that are applied in a haphazard fashion tend to increase community tension,” said Tony Rothert, ACLU-MO legal director. “Judge Perry’s injunction is a huge win for peaceful protesters and those who believe in the rule of law.”
Police can continue enforcing the failure-to-disperse law, Perry said, but the injunction will prevent “the enforcement of an ad hoc rule developed for the Ferguson protests that directed police officers, if they felt like it, to order peaceful, law-abiding protesters to keep moving rather than standing still.”
The keep-moving rule failed to meet any standards of the state’s failure-to-disperse law, which requires that people must willfully refuse to obey orders to leave the scene of a riot or unlawful assembly of at least six people, Perry wrote. By targeting peaceful individuals and small groups, “there is no doubt that people were ordered to keep moving in situations that could never have been covered by the refusal-to-disperse law.”
“Neither the public interest nor the interests of the defendants favor restricting the core constitutional rights of assembly and speech in the arbitrary and vague manner caused by the keep-moving rule,” Perry wrote.
Police officers began enforcing the keep-moving rule in August, when demonstrators began marching for justice after the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Other human rights groups also saw the injunction as a victory for protesters and free speech. “The internationally recognized right of peaceful assembly is essential for the protection of other human rights and must be fully respected,” said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “The unlawful actions of a few should not be used as an excuse to take these fundamental rights away from the community.”