St. Louis County prosecutors will soon decide whether to bring trespassing charges against two journalists arrested while covering demonstrations last summer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly and The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery recently learned that there are open investigations related to their Aug. 13, 2014, arrests and that the cases have been referred to the county counselor's office, which primarily handles local ordinance violations. The St. Louis County Police Department filed incident reports in late April of this year describing the reporters as trespassing when they were seized at a McDonald's restaurant.
Prosecutors have until Aug. 13 to bring charges of trespassing, or another offense, before the one-year statute of limitations expires. A conviction on trespassing in St. Louis County can result in a jail sentence of up to one year, a fine up to $1,000, or both.
“Ryan and I have maintained from day one that our detention was unwarranted, unnecessary and illegal,” Lowery said in an email. “The idea that the prosecutor’s office would consider bringing formal charges in this incident is ludicrous. Officials in St. Louis County should drop this matter, release the relevant documents and allow us all to move on with our lives and onto more important elements of this story.”
"Wesley and I did nothing wrong in this scenario, which occurred shortly after officers with the St. Louis County Police Department trained sniper rifles at a crowd of peaceful protesters in broad daylight," Reilly said in an email.
“I have the backing of my newsroom and have absolutely no worries about facing any charges related to this incident in court," Reilly added.
A police spokesman didn't comment. A St. Louis County spokesman said the counselor's office could not comment because the investigation is still pending.
Reilly and Lowery were arrested at a McDonald’s being used by journalists covering demonstrations that erupted after the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. A police SWAT team entered the restaurant and, after some discussion, ordered it closed. The officers arrested Reilly and Lowery for supposedly not leaving quickly enough. They were released later that night without being charged.
Reilly said in a television interview at the time that a St. Louis County officer, who repeatedly declined to provide his name, shoved the reporter's head against the glass while he was being ushered out in handcuffs. Lowery, in a first-person account published in The Washington Post, said an officer slammed him into a soda machine.
The arrests, part of broader crackdown on the press in Ferguson, were widely criticized by First Amendment advocates and by the reporters' editors. Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said the officers’ behavior “was wholly unwarranted and an assault on the freedom of the press to cover the news.” Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post, condemned the “militant aggression” toward journalists.
Police did not create an arrest report of the encounter, a document that would include any charges. But St. Louis County police filed incident reports in late April. An incident report, typically one to two pages, provides very basic details of an interaction with police and lists an offense.
Reilly and Lowery each said they only recently learned that the cases are still active through an attorney who has filed a $40 million lawsuit on behalf of five other people arrested in Ferguson from Aug. 11 to Aug. 13.
An investigative report related to those arrests -- different from an incident report -- includes case numbers for the still-pending matters involving Reilly and Lowery. An investigative report is a more detailed description of events than an incident report, including statements from those involved.
Lowery and Reilly are briefly mentioned in that investigative report, though not by name. The report describes how the “two persons” arrested at McDonald’s on Aug. 13 had “made no effort to finish what they were doing and to pack their belongings,” a claim disputed by public comments the two reporters have made about the incident. (Lowery also posted video of an officer pushing him out of the restaurant.) The investigative report also reveals the name of the officer who arrested Reilly -- a fact the reporter was previously unable to get from police.
Reilly obtained a copy of his incident report last month following public records requests. The offense listed on the report is “trespassing.”
Lowery told HuffPost he understands police have also referred his case to prosecutors under the offense of trespassing. He initially tried to obtain his incident report, but withdrew the request pending the prosecutor’s decision on whether to bring charges.
Lowery said in an interview that obstacles he and Reilly have faced in trying to obtain basic information about their cases provide “a window into a larger systemic issue." He suggested others arrested in Ferguson who don’t have the benefit of media legal teams are likely to find out even less. “If the cops won’t give me and Ryan paperwork,” he said, “who knows what they’re giving these people?”
Reilly echoed that concern.
"As a reporter, I honestly would have never imagined that it would be this difficult to obtain the name of the officer who assaulted and arrested me,” Reilly said in an email. “I can't imagine how difficult this process must have been to navigate for those without my tremendous advantages, for people whose lives and careers were interrupted or damaged -- not boosted -- by their arrests.”