This morning I sat in a relatively crowded courtroom and observed. A prosecutor and an attorney approached the judge, and although I was near the back of the small municipal courtroom, I was able to make out pieces of the conversation. The judge seemed to be suggesting that the case be dismissed, as it was obvious he felt the statute being cited did not apply in the situation. What statute? What situation?
Last month, a group of people from Coalition for Life St Louis stood outside the Planned Parenthood in the Central West End. They stayed on the sidewalk. They prayed. They didn't speak to anyone who didn't come toward them voluntarily. They placed a plastic sign on the sidewalk. The sign advertised free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, which were to be provided by Thrive's mobile unit just across the street.
After weeks of a steady build in police presence during Coalition for Life's weekly days of prayer and counseling, police finally acted. Five police cars were on the scene. Officers as high ranking as lieutenants approached the group. They quickly centered in on the group's leader, Brian Westbrook, whose calm comment to a fellow activist was simply, "I think we're going to get to see the inside of the police station today."
The police arrested Brian on the sidewalk, cited him for violating two city ordinances (false advertising and unlawful affixing of a sign), then released him with a scheduled court date. The false advertising claim was based on the fact that the ultrasound machine was not right there with him on the sidewalk. The unlawful affixing of a sign was based on the fact that one of their signs was a plastic sandwich board style sign - which they placed on the sidewalk.
This whole situation strikes me as odd.
For one, was it really false advertising if Brian was using that sign to direct women to the Thrive mobile unit parked just across the street? After all, that unit was fully capable of providing the services he offered. And if it was false advertising, why are they not cruising the streets and arresting every Avon Rep. who has the company logo on her car but doesn't carry a full stock of products in the trunk? And what about the McAllister's Deli mobile advertisers? Do they routinely get arrested for not containing the entire franchise inside a PT Cruiser?
And as for the "unlawful affixing of a sign"? Unless St. Louis City is prepared to address the reasons they refused to enforce this same ordinance last fall when occupiers affixed signs and banners to everything in Kiener Plaza that held still, they have no standing to selectively enforce that ordinance against a man who rests an easily movable sign on a public sidewalk.
And so we sat in court this morning, waiting to see the official outcome. After the hushed-tones meeting with the judge, the prosecutor offered the following deal: the case would be dismissed if Brian picked up the court costs for both sides. And Brian politely declined. The case will be heard in its entirety on September 14, 2012 at 9am in St. Louis City Municipal Court.
My take on the issue? Brian Westbrook was ABSOLUTELY RIGHT to refuse the deal offered by the prosecutor. He should not be expected to pay the prosecutor to allow the dismissal of a case that clearly never should have been brought to court in the first place.