March 9, 2018

Local Activist Sues Trump, St. Louis Police After Being Arrested for Laughing at 2016 Campaign Event

A St. Louis activist and organizer has filed a federal lawsuit against President Donald J. Trump, the City of St. Louis, and several St. Louis Metropolitan Police District (SLMPD) police officers after he was falsely arrested at a March 2016 campaign rally for laughing at a comment made by the then-candidate.

On March 11, 2016, Rodney Brown attended the Trump rally at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis. At one point during the event, he laughed in response to a comment made by Trump. In response, Trump repeatedly called “Get him out of here!” from the podium to the enthusiastic applause and chants from his supporters. As the video of the event clearly shows, Mr. Brown was not engaged in any unlawful activity. However, following his removal, Trump remarked individuals such as Mr. Brown “are the people that are destroying our country”.

The lawsuit, filed by the MacArthur Justice Center, highlights a pattern of attack on political dissent during Trump’s campaign for President—attacks which were encouraged by the candidate, and often turned violent against protesters

In one instance, two days prior to Rodney Brown’s arrest, Trump provoked supporters at a North Carolina rally, saying “See, in the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily”.  When a protester was then forcibly removed, he was punched in the face by a Trump supporter.

 “The Trump era is one in which it apparently is not even safe to laugh without fear of being arrested, detained, and prosecuted,” says Amy E. Breihan, staff attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “As long as people in power continue to think they can violate dissenters’ constitutional rights, we will actively resist.”

The lawsuit also highlights SLMPD’s history of biased policing against unwanted speech, and the City’s “no drop” policy. This alleged policy applies only to protest cases, and results in such cases being prosecuted regardless of whether there is probable cause at the time of the arrest, regardless of the weight of the evidence against a defendant, and regardless of the constitutionally-protected nature of the underlying conduct.

SLMPD were present in unusually strong force at the event due, according to an officer named in the suit, largely to similar disturbances at previous campaign events. Following Trump’s demand to remove Rodney Brown, SLMPD officers physically escorted him out of the event and into a booking area they had set up in the hallway specifically for the event. The officers took his possessions and began to pat him down. Other officers filmed him the entire time. Only after asking repeatedly was Mr. Brown informed why he was being arrested: disturbing the peace.

“The City of St. Louis and its police officers take advantage of vaguely-worded municipal ordinances—like general peace disturbance—to make retaliatory arrests of individuals exercising their First Amendment rights and prosecute those cases, often without sufficient evidence” said Shaleen Morales, a Civil Rights Law Fellow with the MacArthur Justice Center. “That practice needs to stop.”

Rodney Brown was one of over 30 people arrested at the Trump rally. He was acquitted approximately eighteen months later, following a bench trial in the City municipal court. His civil suit argues that his arrest, detention, and prosecution violated his rights under the United States and Missouri constitutions.