Mo. man receives $7,000 after arrest for flag desecration

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Cape Girardeau, Mo., man arrested for desecrating an American flag must be paid $7,000 in compensatory damages, a federal judge has ruled.

In October 2009, Frank L. Snider III attempted to burn a flag in his yard. Unable to ignite a flame, Snider took a knife and shredded the flag. He then allegedly threw pieces of the flag into the street. A neighbor called the police.

Police officer Matthew Peters arrested Snider and took him to jail for violating a Missouri flag-desecration law. Snider spent more than seven hours in jail before being released. The prosecutor dismissed the charges after realizing the Missouri state law was likely unconstitutional.

Snider then sued the city, the police officer and the prosecutor in federal court, alleging a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

In March 2012, U.S. District Judge Carol E. Jackson for the Eastern District of Missouri struck down the state flag-desecration law as unconstitutional. The law provided: “Any person who purposefully and publicly mutilates, defaces, defiles, tramples upon or otherwise desecrates the national flag of the United States or the state flag of the state of Missouri is guilty of the crime of flag desecration.”

Jackson based her ruling on the U.S. Supreme Court decision Texas v. Johnson (1989), which invalidated a Texas flag-desecration law on First Amendment grounds. Jackson also ruled that Snider’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated by Peters when he was arrested and locked up.

However, Jackson did not set the amount of damages. The judge also dismissed the claims against the city and the prosecutor.

On Dec. 14, Jackson determined the amount of damages in her opinion in Snider v. City of Cape Girardeau. She wrote “that plaintiff [Snider] is entitled to an award of compensatory damages for the deprivation of his liberty resulting from Peters’ actions.” She set the damage award at $7,000, noting that Snider was in jail for about seven hours.

Jackson refused to award Snider punitive damages, which are damages designed to punish the wrongdoer. Under Missouri law, punitive damages are awarded when a defendant acts from a bad motive or with callous indifference to another’s rights. Jackson deemed that Peters’ actions did not rise to that level.

“The police officer never had any training on the First Amendment,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, who represented Snider. “Rudimentary training would have prevented this case.”

Nevertheless, Rothert was pleased that the judge awarded Snider compensatory damages. “It hopefully sends a message to police officers that they should not enforce clearly unconstitutional laws.”

Jackson’s opinion did not specify whether Officer Peters himself would have to pay Snider the $7,000, or whether the police department would pay it.

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