In Christopher Buckley's 2007 satirical novel "Boomsday," the U.S. Justice Department issues a "nolle prosequi" notice in a case, which the author writes is "Latin for 'We think we'd lose the case, so we're dropping it.'"
In fact it's legalese for "we will no longer prosecute." Ferguson Prosecutor Stephanie Karr quietly laid a slip of paper, a nolle prosequi order, on the judge's bench last Thursday, as six defendants facing charges stemming from a high-profile protest held nearly a year ago were in Ferguson's municipal court waiting for their trial to start.
With that, the defendants were free to go. The charges, including property damage, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and third-degree assault, were dismissed. The city reserved the right to refile the charges. The defendants, meanwhile, went to federal court on Thursday and filed suit against the city, alleging various constitutional violations.
Ms. Karr did not explain her decision, but the city of Ferguson still has not reached a final settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The department harshly criticized the city's police and court practices in the wake of the Aug. 9, 2014, police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent protests.
The cases dismissed last week stemmed from a protest on Feb. 9, the six-month anniversary of Mr. Brown's death. The DOJ report on policing in Ferguson was released just 24 days later, but it went into some detail criticizing the police response to that protest.
"Video shows that as one man recorded the police arresting others, he was arrested for interfering with police action," the DOJ report says. "Officers pushed him to the ground, began handcuffing him, and announced, 'Stop resisting or you're going to get tased.' It appears from the video, however, that the man was neither interfering nor resisting."
The DOJ report goes on to say that a "sergeant shouted at those filming that they would be arrested for Manner of Walking if they did not back away out of the street, even though it appears from the video recordings that the protesters and those recording were on the sidewalk at most, if not all, times."
Ferguson has instituted reforms in its municipal courts, throwing out 10,000 old warrants. It has pledged a new era for its police department. The DOJ report makes it clear that the new era hadn't begun when the police, faced with hostile protesters on Feb. 9, responded with what the DOJ calls arrests for various charges relating to "contempt of cop."
Such arrests may be understandable to a cop under pressure, but the Supreme Court has said they're not legal.
Ms. Karr did the right thing in dropping the charges. It's too bad it took her almost a year to do it, and that the court still chooses to operate in secret.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST LOUIS POST DISPATCH