Judge rules Missouri flag desecration law unconstitutional

Thursday, March 22, 2012 | 10:31 a.m. CDT; updated 5:00 p.m. CDT, Thursday, March 22, 2012

ST. LOUIS — Missouri's flag desecration law is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Carol E. Jackson issued a permanent injunction Tuesday in the case of Frank Snider, a Cape Girardeau man arrested in 2009 for cutting up an American flag then throwing it into the street.

Jackson's ruling orders the state, its political subdivisions and its officials from "enforcing or threatening to enforce" the law.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Tony Rothert, who represented Snider, said Missouri is among at least 20 states with laws prohibiting flag desecration.

"It's a long-delayed victory in Missouri," Rothert said. "The Supreme Court has been pretty clear that these statutes are unconstitutional."

"It's satisfying to have Missouri's statute finally declared unconstitutional, but it's not surprising at all," he said.

The Missouri Attorney General's office was still reviewing the decision, spokeswoman Nanci Gonder said, and she declined further comment.

Snider was standing in his front yard in October 2009 when he tried to set fire to an American flag. Unable to do so, he used a knife to shred it, then threw it on the ground.

Court documents showed that a neighbor called police and told the dispatcher, "He's cut the United States flag up with a knife, throw'd it out in the street for the cars to run over. Now, I am a United State citizen and I don't like it."

Snider told police he shredded the flag "because it was the country's fault that he could not find a job."

A police officer issued a citation for littering and after learning of the state statute prohibiting flag desecration arrested Snider on that charge. Snider was jailed for eight hours and eventually charged.

Cape Girardeau County prosecutor Morley Swingle told the court he was unaware at the time of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 decision deeming Texas' flag desecration law unconstitutional. Swingle dismissed the charge against Snider after learning of that case.

The city of Cape Girardeau also had a city ordinance prohibiting flag desecration at the time of Snider's arrest, though he was never charged with violating that ordinance. The city repealed the ordinance in February 2011.

In a separate ruling on Wednesday, Jackson ruled that Snider's Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure was violated by police when he was arrested for flag desecration. A trial to determine damages is scheduled to begin in August.

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