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Appeals court: State must pay damages in St. Louis case

Appeals court: State must pay damages in St. Louis case

May 15th, 2019 by Bob Watson in Local News

Missouri's State Legal Expense Fund — which in recent years has had to make some large payments in court cases — must pay a $2.5 million federal civil suit award to Michael Holmes, a three-judge panel of the state's appeals court in St. Louis ruled Tuesday.

The case history leading to Tuesday's ruling is somewhat complicated.

In December 2003, Holmes — who had previous drug convictions — was arrested by two St. Louis police officers.

In June 2006, he was convicted of federal drug crimes and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

After Holmes was in prison, the appeals court noted, the two police officers — Sharp and Garrett — "were investigated for multiple alleged instances of misconduct."

Garrett eventually was sentenced to 28 months in a federal prison, and Sharp resigned from the police force.

The appeals court noted none of the officers' instances of misconduct were related to Holmes' conviction.

However, Holmes asked the court to vacate his drug conviction after his arrest by Sharp and Garrett, and in 2011, the U.S. District Court in St. Louis granted that request because, the 10-page appeals court ruling said: "Sharp and Garrett, who testified at (Holmes') trial, had been discredited and the government would have failed to meet its burden of proof with the remaining evidence."

In December 2012, Holmes filed a civil rights suit against St. Louis' mayor, the Board of Police Commissioners and the two officers.

Sharp and Garrett were represented by the attorney general's office in the federal court trial.

On March 4, 2016, the jury found in Holmes' favor and awarded him the $2.5 million.

On March 10, Holmes asked the state's Legal Expense Fund to pay the award — and sued in state court when the fund said it wouldn't pay.

The appeals court said a question before the circuit court was who controlled the St. Louis police department — because it was a state agency until voters in November 2012 approved transferring the police to the city's control, which happened in September 2013.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Roy L. Richter wrote: "The trial court found the issue to be determined was whether 'the (fund) covers (the Award) that was entered in 2016, after the (St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department) was no longer under state control, but arose from police officer conduct that occurred in 2003 while the SLMPD was under state control.'"

The appeals court found the state law written to complete the transfer of the St. Louis police from state to local control was clear: "For any claim or other action arising out of actions occurring before the date of completion of (the) transfer the state shall continue to provide legal representation (and) and the (State Legal Expense Fund) shall continue to provide reimbursement for such claims."

Also, the appeals court noted, the law said: "This subsection applies to all claims, lawsuits, and other actions brought against any police officer."

While the state argued an amendment to the St. Louis police transfer law should apply, the court said: "The actions leading to Respondent's claim occurred in 2003, roughly a decade before the transfer of the SLMPD to local control.

"There is no genuine issue of material fact and (Holmes) is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because in 2003, when (Holmes) was arrested and Sharp and Garrett's misconduct occurred, the (legal expense fund) clearly covered (Holmes') claim and indemnified Sharp and Garrett."