A federal judge in St. Louis has ordered police in Ferguson, Missouri to stop enforcing a rule that threatens protesters with arrest if they stop moving. The judge said the rule violates constitutional rights.
Police adopted the so-called "keep moving" policy — which prohibits protesters from remaining still for more than five seconds — as a method to control large crowds that gathered to protest the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen, Michael Brown, by a white Ferguson police officer.
The policy was introduced on Aug. 18, a day after an unruly group of protesters attempted to overrun a temporary police command center that had been established about a mile from the protest, according to the ruling.
The judge’s decision, issued Monday after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a case against the police tactic, represents the first successful legal challenge to the controversial policing tactics being used in Ferguson.
"The rule of law is essential to our constitutional system of government, and it applies equally to law enforcement officers and to other citizens," said the order issued by U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry. She issued a preliminary injunction halting the five-second tactic, holding that it violates protesters’ First Amendment and due process rights.
The ACLU called the decision a major victory.
“Vague rules that are applied in a haphazard fashion tend to increase community tension,” Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a news release.
The ACLU alleged that police had invoked the rule in a number of cases, including when individuals stood still for more than five seconds or walked back and forth in the protest area.
People in Ferguson were subject to the “keep moving” rule "for no reason other than that they were standing still on the public sidewalks,"Judge Perry said.
In her decision, the judge stressed that the injunction is not meant to prevent law enforcement from making reasonable restrictions to control crowds and protect people from acts of violence. The order simply prevents police from enforcing an "ad hoc rule" that targets peaceful, law-abiding protesters, she said.
In addition to First Amendment concerns, the judge said the policy also violated citizens' due process rights because it was arbitrarily enforced and left to the "unfettered discretion of the officers on the street."
"Criminal laws must be defined in a way that allows ordinary people to understand what conduct is against the law," she said.
The St. Louis County Police department told online publication Mashable that it will fully comply with Perry’s decision. "It will not affect our plans as we were not going to use it going forward," said Sgt. Brian Schellman, a spokesman at the department.