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St. Louis asks appeals court to force protestor to pay attorney fees for suing police

By: and - October 5, 2021 2:21 pm

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.)

An attorney for the city of St. Louis argued in court Tuesday that a woman who sued a police officer for excessive force must pay $57,000 in attorneys fees the city spent on the case.

Kristine “Kris” Hendrix filed a lawsuit in 2017 claiming that two St. Louis officers used excessive force, tasing her repeatedly when she was leaving a Black Lives Matter protest.

A St. Louis jury awarded her $3,500 in damages for battery by one of the officers, Stephen Ogunjobi. The other officer, Louis Wilson, was not found at fault.

St. Louis wants Hendrix to pay the $57,000 in attorney fees it amassed defending Wilson, citing a 2007 law. But last year, a circuit court denied the city’s request, saying the city counselor’s office didn’t follow proper procedure in requesting the fees.

On Tuesday, the Missouri Court of Appeals in the Eastern District was asked to reverse that denial, as well as damages awarded as part of Ogunjobi’s guilty verdict.

“The trial court improperly speculated that the taser cycles could have been motivated by malice or ill will,” said Erin McGowan, associate city counselor, who was representing one of the officers and the City of St. Louis.

Hendrix’s attorneys from the nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders countered that, “malice can be inferred from continuing to use a taser at maximum capacity while a woman is lying on the ground screaming.”

They argued Tuesday that the officer’s claim for these fees was invalid because the city counselor did not initially request them until three years after the case was filed and on the eve of trial. And the circuit judge ruled that the request needed to come in the city’s response after the suit was filed in 2017. 

They also argued that, in order to require Hendrix to pay attorney fees, the jury in the earlier trial had to have explicitly stated that Wilson’s actions during the 2015 protest were justified. 

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

As she and a few other protestors were walking on the sidewalk that night, St. Louis police officers arrested them. 

In court Tuesday, one of the judges asked whether it was ever a disputed fact if Hendrix was “able to comply” and put her hands behind her back.

The city counselor said, “with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight,” officers might’ve been able to see a reason why Hendrix couldn’t move her arm. But the officers were responding “in the heat of the moment.” 

On Dec. 1, 2016, Circuit Judge Nicole Colbert-Botchway acquitted Hendrix for resisting arrest, 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.

During Tuesday’s hearing, the city argued the two officers saw that Hendrix had a “closed fist” — which Hendrix refutes — and that justified them tasing her three times in less than a minute.

Maureen Hanlon, an ArchCity Defenders attorney, said Tuesday’s hearing was difficult for Hendrix.

“The force used was egregious, and a jury agreed,” Hanlon said. “It is hard for Ms. Hendrix to sit and hear the city’s continued defense of this force that was very traumatizing for her.”

A spokesman for Mayor Tishaura Jones declined comment on the case. 

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.

Sophie Hurwitz
Sophie Hurwitz

Sophie Hurwitz is a reporter from St. Louis. A recent graduate of Wellesley College, she focuses on historically-rooted solutions journalism. She currently works as an education and criminal justice system reporter for the St. Louis American, and is a former fellow with New Voices Magazine and the Jewish Women's Archive.