BATON ROUGE – A federal judge's decision to postpone a hearing in a protest-related lawsuit against Baton Rouge area police in light of recent violence against local law enforcement could indicate all sides are communicating, said a Loyola University law professor.
"It is not unusual for a federal judge to postpone hearings on requests for injunctions as long as all parties agree," Bill Quigley, law professor and director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University, said during a recent Louisiana Record email interview. "That action usually means the parties are talking and trying to resolve the most urgent matters themselves."
U.S. District Judge John deGravelles agreed last week to postpone a scheduled hearing in the case at the joint request of Louisiana American Civil Liberties Union and local activist groups, as well as Baton Rouge-area law enforcement agencies whom they are suing.
The joint request was issued in light of events surrounding the tragic deaths of the Baton Rouge police officers, Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Marjorie Esman was quoted in an article by The Advocate. The same article said Baton Rouge attorney Preston Castille Jr., legal counsel for the Louisiana Department of Public Safety, Louisiana State Police, and state Police Supt. Col. Mike Edmonson, all defendants in the suit, agreed with the Louisiana ACLU's explanation and joined her statement.
A hearing in the case had been scheduled to begin July 28.
"The next step is usually a status conference between the parties and the court either face to face or by phone to set up a full blown hearing," Quigley said.
DeGravelles announced, along with his decision to postpone, a status conference with legal counsel in the case is scheduled Aug. 4.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed July 13, allege the different law enforcement agencies violated the constitutional rights of protesters angry over the July 5 police shooting death of Alton Sterling outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. Plaintiffs allege defendant law enforcement agencies used excessive force, physically and verbally abused protesters and wrongfully arrested many in an effort to break up the demonstrations.
Plaintiffs in the case are asking the court to prohibit law enforcement from interfering with protesters' and their constitutionally guaranteed right to gather peacefully.
The case was filed eight days after Sterling's death and four days prior to the ambush near police headquarters on Airline Highway that left two Baton Rouge police officers and an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputy dead. Three other law enforcement officers were wounded in the ambush and the gunman from Missouri was killed by police.
In addition to the fatalities and injuries, Baton Rouge area law enforcement are under a great deal of legal pressure caused by what one activist described during an interview earlier this month as a history of heavy-handed tactics and excessive use of force that extends even to peaceful protesters. This past spring, a federal court found that members of the Baton Rouge Police Department authorized an unlawful strip search and assault on a New Orleans man that knocked out some of his teeth.
The Baton Rouge Police Department also is being sued by the family a 32-year-old Zachary man, who died after being tased by Baton Rouge law enforcement officers last summer, and a television news reporter who says he was illegally confined at a crime scene in the city in March 2015.
Other litigants in the protest-related case who agreed that the hearing be postponed were North Baton Rouge Matters, Black Youth Project 100, New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, the Louisiana chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, the city of Baton Rouge, Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, and Mayor-President Kip Holden.
Although it's unclear how much time should pass before hearing in the case may continue, Quigley said changing the hearing location is not an option.
"Change of venue issues only come up when jury trials are planned," he said. "Because this is a suit for an injunction, this will be tried before the judge alone and change of venue does not really apply."