St. Louis fights to force protestor to pay thousands in attorney fees for suing police

By: - September 30, 2021 7:23 am

Kristine “Kris” Hendrix, 41, filed a lawsuit against St. Louis police officers and was awarded $3,500 in damages in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Kris Hendrix.)

Around midnight in May 2015, Kristine “Kris” Hendrix was walking to her car after a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown St. Louis.

As a mother of three Black boys and an elected school board member, Hendrix says she was moved to march in the street alongside dozens of others to speak out against the death of Black youth like Michael Brown and many others at the hands of police. 

“I do it for my children,” Hendrix said, in an interview in 2015. “I do it for the children in my youth group and for all children. They deserve an advocate.”

But as Hendrix and a few other protestors were walking to their cars on the sidewalk that night, St. Louis police officers grabbed them. 

Hendrix was thrown to the ground and shocked with a Taser three times in less than a minute. A year later, a circuit court judge dismissed her resisting arrest charge. 

Hendrix sued the two officers involved in the attack. In February 2020, a jury awarded damages against only one of the officers — a Black man who tased her — of battery.

Now six years later, Hendrix will head back to court next week to fend off a push by the city to make her pay $57,000 in attorney’s fees that it cost the city to represent the white officer that the jury didn’t award damages against.

A circuit court judge ruled she didn’t have to pay those fees. The city is now asking asking the Court of Appeals to reverse the decision and force Hendrix to pay up.

St. Louis will be represented in the case by its new city counselor, Sheena Hamilton — the first Black woman to serve in that position in the city’s history.

The city argues it is required to charge the fees under a 2007 law that mandates attorneys fees if someone sues and officer for excessive force and loses.

Hamilton came into her position this week, but the city filed its appeal brief on April 23 — three days after St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones was sworn into office as the first Black woman to lead the city.

Hendrix’s attorneys say that the state law does not require the city to charge her more than $50,000.

 “The city is making the decision to try to shake down Ms. Hendrix for these fees — there is nothing mandating them to take this position, or the amount,” said Jack Waldron, staff attorney at ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit law firm defending Hendrix in the case.

The mayor’s spokesman said that the city does not comment on pending litigation, but that the case is under review.

As a former elected leader and an activist, Hendrix says she knows what her case truly represents. 

It’s already extremely hard to win a lawsuit against police officers. She says St. Louis leaders would be sending a message: anyone who attempts to bring their grievances about police conduct to court could pay tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. 

“I think that it would have a huge effect on our city,” said Hendrix, now 41, in an interview Wednesday. “It can feel like a bullying tactic, so that people would not want to come forward to address those grievances. Because that would be a heavy financial lift for working-class families.”

‘I can’t, it hurts’

Three years after Hendrix filed her lawsuit claiming that two officers used excessive force, a St. Louis jury awarded her $3,500.

The jury found in favor of Hendrix on only one battery count against St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Stephen Ogunjobi, but nothing against Officer Louis Wilson. Her lawsuit had also claimed assault, excessive force, battery, false arrest and imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.

During the 2015 arrest, another protestor had handed his phone to Hendrix, who continued to record video as she walked away on the sidewalk in an attempt to disperse.

In the video, Wilson, who is white, is heard telling her to put her hand behind her back, while Ogunjobi – who is black – was shooting debilitating electrical currents into her body at the same time. She’s heard crying, “Stop, please stop. It hurts.”

Lawyers from the City Counselor’s Office represented the police officers in the case, as they will in the appeal. In the trial, they argued Ogunjobi was justified in tasing Hendrix because he thought she had a “closed fist.” The burn mark on Hendrix’s breast was “mild,” the city argued, and her physical injuries were minor.

Hendrix had been charged with resisting arrest and interfering with vehicular traffic — because they had protested in the street without a permit. On Dec. 1, 2016, Circuit Judge Nicole Colbert-Botchway acquitted Hendrix, concluding that the “evidence presented in this case does not establish that Ms. Hendrix was ever given an opportunity to comply before she was tased repeatedly and then handcuffed.”

Colbert-Botchway stated in her judgment that it was clear from the video and from Wilson’s testimony that he and Ogunjobi approached Hendrix from behind.

“An officer can be heard saying ‘Put your hands behind your back,’ but before he even finishes the sentence the sound of Officer Ogunjobi administering another cycle of tasing to Ms. Hendrix can be heard, and she screams,” Colbert-Botchway wrote. 

Hendrix then can be heard saying over and over, “I can’t it hurts!” before Ogunjobi tases her a third time, the judge notes. Screaming again, Hendrix said, “Oh my God, why are you doing this, I’m on the ground.”

The 2007 law

Had the protest occurred in 2006 and Hendrix filed her lawsuit that year, she would not be in the position she is in today. 

Normally in lawsuits, each party pays for their own attorney fees and Hendrix losing her case wouldn’t mean the other party can make her pay for their legal fees. 

But in 2007, then-Sen. Jack Goodman, a Republican from southwestern Missouri who is now an appellate judge, championed a bill that largely dealt with requirements around firearms. But sandwiched into the layered bill was a measure giving law enforcement who use “justified force” absolute defense against criminal prosecution or civil liability. 

“The court shall award attorney’s fees, court costs, and all reasonable expenses incurred by the defendant in defense of any civil action brought by the plaintiff if the court finds that the defendant has an absolute defense,” the bill states.

After the civil jury trial, then-City Counselor Julian Bush asked the judge to order Hendrix to pay $57,258.65 in attorney fees and court costs. 

Circuit Judge Michael Steltzer denied the motion, saying Bush hadn’t followed the proper procedure to request them. The city counselor’s office is appealing that decision, and the hearing is set for Oct. 5 in the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District. 

Yet Hendrix is hopeful that the new city counselor and mayor — who has largely been supported by the movement for racial equity and police accountability — will take a different approach than the last administration. She’s hoping they will drop the quest for the fees.

Just a couple weeks ago, the mayor’s chief of staff Jared Boyd said that the city counselor would go in a different direction, as it relates to police brutality cases. 

“The new city counselor is going to be given a mandate to reconsider what winning looks like,” Boyd told St. Louis Public Radio. “It’s not to say we shouldn’t be cognizant of city resources, but that can’t be the only thing.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.

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