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Kansas City Asks Court To Throw Out Lawsuit By Protesters Arrested Under ‘Failure-To-Obey’ Laws

053120_Plaza protest Crowd_Moreno.jpg
Carlos Moreno
A large crowd carrying placards and signs, some bearing the face of George Floyd, face off against a line of police officers on the Country Club Plaza during protests this summer.

The ordinances prohibit people from interfering with public safety officials. The ACLU of Missouri, which represents the protesters, say the laws are both unconstitutional on their face and as applied.

Kansas City, Missouri, has moved to dismiss a lawsuit filed by three women who were arrested during protests this summer and claim the city’s “failure to obey” ordinances are unconstitutional.

In court documents filed on Wednesday, the city cited two decisions by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that address substantially similar laws and upheld their constitutionality.

In the first case, the court found in 2010 that an ordinance under which a woman was arrested for obstructing police officers who arrested her son was constitutional.

The woman had challenged the ordinance on free speech grounds, but the court found the ordinance only covered physical acts or “fighting words” and didn’t give police unfettered discretion to make arrests “for mere words that annoy them.”

In the second case, from 2017, the court turned back a challenge by a protester arrested for refusing to leave an overpass after being ordered to do so by the Missouri Highway Patrol.

It ruled the law did not impose any restraint on the protester’s speech and only applied if the protester failed to comply with a trooper’s proper order under a separate law.

The three women suing the city — Sarah Moody, Grace Reading and Emily Cady — argue that the “failure to obey” ordinances are unconstitutionally vague and were used “to target protesters who are critical of Kansas City law enforcement.”

The ordinances prohibit people from interfering with public safety officials. The ACLU of Missouri, which represents the women, says the laws are both unconstitutional on their face and as applied.

Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said the city is “confusing cases where police officers’ actions were challenged with what we’re doing here, which is challenging the ordinances.”

“The city is really throwing the police under the bus and saying that our complaints are with the police department but they are not,” Rothert said. “I mean, we may also have complaints against the police department, but what this case is about — the reason folks are being arrested, the excuse to arrest them — is the city ordinances … And that’s what makes this case different from those other cases.”

The women were arrested during demonstrations in May and June following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police. The killing touched off protests across the country, including daily protests in Kansas City on and near the Country Club Plaza.

Moody says she was sitting close to a curb on May 31 when two officers picked her off the ground while six others surrounded her and asked her if she was going to move. She says she was arrested after she replied “No.”

Cady says that she was among a group of demonstrators who, while marching in the midtown area on June 1, encountered police who blocked them, ordered them to move in another direction, advanced toward them and then arrested her after she refused to comply with an order to get on the ground.

Reading says she and other protesters were standing on a yellow traffic line on June 2 when police ordered them to step back. After Reading refused and locked arms with a friend, she says police arrested them both.

The two decisions by the 8th Circuit, the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over Missouri, involved different laws but they contained similar language to the Kansas City ordinances at issue.

In asking the court to throw out the women’s case, the city also says they lack legal standing to bring the lawsuit because they are not facing any criminal prosecution or consequences from their arrests.

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