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Judge dismisses St. Louis lawsuit arguing Missouri 'police bill of rights' is unconstitutional

On Nov. 14, Missouri judge ruled to uphold a 2021 law bolstering protections for police under investigation for misconduct.
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On Nov. 14, Missouri judge ruled to uphold a 2021 law bolstering protections for police under investigation for misconduct.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem denied the city’s claims that the 2021 state law bolstering protections for police under investigation for misconduct was unconstitutional.

A Missouri judge Monday dismissed the City of St. Louis’ effort to block a 2021 law bolstering protections for police under investigation for misconduct.

The city suedin December asking Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem to toss out the “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights,” a list of new requirements that includes giving officers written notice of the allegation before an investigation begins and putting a 90-day limit on misconduct investigations.

State Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, sponsored the 2021 bill that established the new protections, which he argued would “strengthen (officers’) due process rights when they’ve been accused of misconduct in an internal investigation.”

The lawsuit alleged the bill of rights is unconstitutional because it creates an unfunded mandate for the city and creates two classes of public-safety employees — the police and every other public-safety employee.

It also conflicts with how the city charter outlines discipline and legal representation for police officers, the lawsuit argued.

In his Nov. 14 order, Beetem found the law does not violate the constitution in the ways outlined in the city’s lawsuit.

Among the city’s main claims was that the law violated the Hancock Amendment, a portion of Missouri’s constitution that states the legislature cannot require a city to increase an activity or service beyond that mandated by existing law, unless a state appropriation is made to pay the city for any increased costs.

The city argued the law would require more work during internal investigations of officers, such as gathering depositions and meeting tight deadlines to complete the investigations. It would also increase the amount of legal representation required of the city’s attorneys.

Beetem denied these claims, stating that he did not see these activities being “new or increased.”

The city also claimed that the legislation violated the “single-subject” provision of the Missouri Constitution.

While the bill was originally titled as “relating to public safety,” the lawsuit states that it grew from seven to 88 sections and added amendments related to lotteries, pesticide regulation and electric fences, which don’t pertain to public safety.

The legislation “includes a miscellany of provisions that have little or nothing to do with the state’s Department of Public Safety or public safety in general,” the lawsuit contends.

Beetem denied this claim as well.

St. Louis officials did not immediately respond to request for comment on the order.

Before the bill was passed into law, former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden voiced his opposition in a Feb. 1, 2021 letter to legislators, stating that giving officers advanced notice could jeopardize an investigation. It also requires that law enforcement agencies give officers notice of who will be conducting the investigation. Some of the requirements could also have a “chilling effect” for witnesses who want to come forward, Hayden wrote at the time.

The legislation “significantly interferes with our ability to meet the expectations of Missouri residents with respect to holding officers accountable for sustained allegations of misconduct,” Hayden stated.

St. Louis civilian oversight ordinance

Beetem’s order will likely have an impact on another lawsuit involving the city, where three St. Louis police organizations are attempting to strike down an ordinance that would expand civilian oversight of police work.

In a Sept. 9 order, St. Louis Circuit Judge Jason Sengheiser cited the sLaw Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights as the basis for issuing a preliminary injunction on the ordinance.

Sengheiser ordered the city had to stop implementing its new Division of Civilian Oversight — a civilian-led independent agency that’s paid for by the city and that was set to build a team of 10 investigators to take over all internal police investigations that have to do with misconduct and use of force.

Sengheiser pointed to several provisions in the state law.

The portion of St. Louis’ ordinance that he ruled could be considered a conflict reads: “City employees involved in or witness to police correctional incidents or misconduct shall provide a statement to civilian oversight investigators immediately upon request.”

The city argues that the ordinance was not intended to apply to an officer who is the subject of an investigation but rather to other city employees, Sengheiser wrote in his order.

“However, defendants admitted that SLMPD officers are city employees,” he wrote.

On Oct. 11, Sengheiser walked back a portion of the injunction.

Sengheiser’s order allows the newly-formed Detention Facilities Oversight Board to continue to operate. It’s a nine-member volunteer board of city residents who review complaints of alleged misconduct in the jails. The board has the power to issue subpoenas to witnesses or production of documents, as well as be granted access to city detention facilities upon request.

The judge’s order states that the Division of Corrections may hire and train civilian oversight staff “to investigate and support investigations of corrections professional misconduct and detention incidents in a detention facility.”

The law at the center of both the lawsuits also included a provision penalizing cities that cut police budgets, which is a way to counter the call to “defund the police,” Eigel said.

“Defund the police” is an umbrella term that includes initiatives like allocating police funds to hire social workers to handle certain 911 calls, which Hayden and the city’s public safety director both support.

Another provision impacts minors who have served at least 15 years of their sentence would be eligible for parole, except in certain cases like murder in the first degree.

The amendment was inspired by Bobby Bostic, who was sentenced to 241 years in prison when he was 16 after he and a friend committed a pair of armed robberies in 1995.

Bostic was released on parole last week.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration for the Missouri Independent. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.
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