Privacy SOS

St. Louis police chief takes to Twitter to brag about unconstitutional arrest

Last night Chief Sam Dotson of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in Missouri tweeted this:

There are a number of problems with this tweet, first among them that the Chief is bragging about an unconstitutional arrest. Numerous federal courts have held that statutes banning or restricting panhandling are unconstitutional. In September 2015, the First Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Portland, Maine anti-poor people ordinance banning people from sitting or standing on roadway medians was unconstitutional because it violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. Federal courts have also cited the First Amendment in striking down anti-panhandling ordinances in Lowell and Worcester, Massachusetts. Also in 2015, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found unconstitutional a Springfield, Illinois ordinance banning panhandling in the city’s downtown. Put simply, as ACLU of Maine legal director Zachary Heiden said after winning in the First Circuit: “Panhandling is First Amendment protected speech.”

In St. Louis, like in too many cities nationwide, officials are responding to poverty by criminalizing poor people’s speech. Adding insult to injury, the chief apparently has no problem publicly bragging about conduct that numerous federal courts have held violates the law. 

And his tweet is troubling in more than one way. While he says arresting poor people for public speech is a “great result” of the department’s new snitch app, he also claims the app allows users to provide “anonymous tips.” But that’s not what users are told when they attempt to download the app from the Google Play store. As Twitter user @thatsracistaf2 observes, the app actually sucks up a lot of personal information, including identifying information, location, phone data, media files, and wifi info. 

© 2018 ACLU of Massachusetts.