Constitutional Law

Editor:
Joshua C. Devine, Esquire

Man who spent nearly a decade in prison ordered discharged because of Brady violation. In re: Ferguson v. Dormire, No. 76058 (Mo. App. W.D., November 5, 2013), Martin, J.

In 2005, Petitioner Ryan Ferguson was convicted by a Boone County jury of second degree murder and first degree robbery. Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus alleging, inter alia, that he should receive a new trial because he established a gateway permitting review of his procedurally defaulted claims that his due process rights were violated and that he was deprived of his right to a fair trial. In support, petitioner alleged that the State failed to turn over material, favorable evidence regarding an interview the State took of the wife of the State’s key witness, Jerry Trump. At trial, Mr. Trump provided an eye witness identification of petitioner. Although he originally told police that he could not provide a detailed description of the two men he saw at the crime scene, he testified at trial that he was able to identify the men after he happened, by coincidence, to see a picture of them in a newspaper he received from his wife while in prison. An investigator for the State conducted an interview of Trump’s wife, and she denied sending him the paper. Unaware that the interview had occurred, the prosecutor did not disclose the substance of the interview to petitioner, or even that it took place. Petitioner claims that this failure to disclose was a violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).  

Held
: Writ granted. Petitioner has established the gateway of cause and prejudice, and thus the court is permitted to review petitioner’s procedurally defaulted claims. Petitioner has also established that the State violated Brady, resulting in a verdict that is not worthy of confidence and warranting petitioner’s discharge from prison. Pursuant to Brady, the State must turn over, even without request, exculpatory evidence, including evidence that can be used to impeach key government witnesses. Here, the interview of Trump’s wife, which significantly undercut Trump’s explanation for identification, clearly falls within the realm of disclosures required by Brady, even if the prosecutor himself was unaware of the interview. The interview was material because the State’s case hinged on Trump’s eye witness identification of Petitioner. There was no physical evidence tying Petitioner to the crimes, and the only other witness who placed him at the crime scene was his alleged accomplice, whose testimony was seriously challenged at trial. The evidence was also material because it could have led Petitioner to discover other evidence that could have impacted the admissibility of Trump’s identification, and because of the effect of the nondisclosure when considered with other information the State failed to disclose.            



Eastern District holds red light camera ordinance void and unenforceable due to conflict with state law. Edwards, et al. v. City of Ellisville, et al., No. 99389 (Mo. App. E.D., November 5, 2013), Odenwald, J.


Appellants received red light camera tickets in the form of a “Notice of Violation” pursuant to an ordinance passed by the City of Ellisville which made the owner of a vehicle strictly liable for running a red light regardless of who was driving the offending vehicle. The notices of violation provided specific instructions for challenging the red light camera tickets in a court hearing. The Edwards and Bissells paid the fine, thereby pleading guilty to the non-moving violation imposed by the ordinance. The Annins and Cusumanos did not pay the fine, and have outstanding citations. Appellants filed an eight-count petition seeking, inter alia, a declaration that the City’s ordinance is unconstitutional and violates various other constitutional rights. Appellants also alleged that the ordinance is invalid because it is in conflict with state law. The trial court dismissed each of appellants’ claims. This appeal followed. 

Held
: Reversed in part.

(1) The Annins and Cusumanos’ claims were properly dismissed. They chose not pay the fine, and can challenge their tickets through a municipal court hearing. As such, they have an adequate remedy at law such that declaratory or injunctive relief is improper.

(2) The issue of whether the Edwards and Bissells have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the ordinance is moot. Under Missouri law, constitutional questions must be raised at the first possible opportunity. Here, the notice of violation provided the Edwards and Bissells with the opportunity to challenge the red light camera tickets in a municipal proceeding. They chose not do so, electing to pay the fine. In so doing, they waived whatever constitutional claims they may have had. They are also estopped from pursing such claims by paying the fine. 

(3) The trial court erred in dismissing the Edwards’ and Bissels’ claim regarding conflict between the ordinance and state law. The Edwards and Bissels were directly affected by the ordinance they now challenge, and thus have standing to raise their conflict claim.

(4) The trial court erred in finding that the ordinance does not conflict with state law. The ordinance makes owners of a vehicle strictly liable when their vehicle is used to run a red light, and makes any violation of the ordinance a non-moving violation. By contrast, state law prohibits a driver or pedestrian from running a red light, and classifies such offense as a moving violation requiring the assessment of points on a license. Because the ordinance conflicts with state law, it is void and unenforceable.        



City of St. Louis employee in classified service does not have a constitutional right to distribute an e-mail containing a political message through the City’s e-mail system. Wilson v. City of St. Louis, Missouri, et al., 99288 (Mo. App. E.D., October 29, 2013), Sullivan, J.


Appellant was terminated from employment in the classified service of the City of St. Louis after using the city’s e-mail system to forward an e-mail containing an attachment that solicited support for certain political candidates in partisan political elections in violation of the city’s charter and the Civil Service rules. Appellant appealed his termination to the Civil Service Commission, which upheld the termination. Appellant also asked for an evidentiary hearing in circuit court, which was denied. He then appealed to this court arguing, inter alia, that the subject policies violate his constitutional rights to due process, free speech, or equal protection, and that such policies are unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.  

Held
: Affirmed. The subject policies prohibit civil service employees from taking an active part in a political campaign, and soliciting support for political candidates in partisan political elections. However, the subject policies are limited. They carefully safeguard employees’ rights to belong to political organizations, to cast their votes as they please, and to express privately their opinions on political questions. As written, the subject policies serve the legitimate goal of increasing efficiency in public service, and do not therefore violate due process, free speech, or equal protection rights. Further, the subject policies are clear and concise, and thus, are not unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.



State statute moots case challenging constitutionality of St. Louis County’s mortgage foreclosure mediation ordinance. Missouri Bankers Association, et al. v. St. Louis County, Missouri, et al., 99333 (Mo. App. E.D., October 15, 2013), Hoff, J.


St. Louis County enacted an ordinance requiring lenders to provide residential borrowers an opportunity to mediate before foreclosing on the borrower's home. Plaintiffs filed suit, challenging the county's constitutional police power to enact the ordinance. The county moved for summary judgment, its motion was granted, and this appeal followed. While the appeal was pending, the Missouri legislature passed § 443.454, RSMo, which added to the state's mortgage foreclosure law. The statute prohibited local governments from modifying the rights of lenders with respect real estate loan agreements. The Eastern District requested additional briefing regarding the effect of the new statute on the pending litigation. In its supplemental brief, the County admitted that the case had been rendered moot because its ordinance was prohibited by the new statute and because it would not be enforcing the ordinance.

St. Louis County enacted an ordinance requiring lenders to provide residential borrowers an opportunity to mediate before foreclosing on the borrower’s home. Plaintiffs filed suit, challenging the county’s constitutional police power to enact the ordinance. The county moved for summary judgment, its motion was granted, and this appeal followed. While the appeal was pending, the Missouri legislature passed § 443.454, RSMo, which added to the state’s mortgage foreclosure law. The statute prohibited local governments from modifying the rights of lenders with respect real estate loan agreements. The Eastern District requested additional briefing regarding the effect of the new statute on the pending litigation. In its supplemental brief, the County admitted that the case had been rendered moot because its ordinance was prohibited by the new statute and because it would not be enforcing the ordinance.

Held
: Case dismissed as moot. A case is rendered moot when something happens during the pendency of the case to make the court’s decision unnecessary. A moot case presents no justiciable controversy and is subject to dismissal for that reason. Here, the county admitted that its ordinance is prohibited by the new statute, and that it is abandoning its efforts to enforce the ordinance. Under such circumstances, the majority held the case to be moot. Notably, the dissent argued that case is not moot because the county has not agreed to repeal its ordinance and could enforce it at any time. The dissent also argued that the mediation program is a valid exercise of the county’s constitutional police powers, which could not be altered by statute.