Local

March 13, 2013

St. Louis officer wants job back as lobbyist for marijuana group

He was pushing measure to lighten penalty for minor offenses, and says bosses are squelching his free-speech rights.

Police Sgt. Gary Wiegert has spent 32 years enforcing the law in St. Louis. Now that he is a lobbyist for a group that wants to change one of those laws – how small-time marijuana offenders are dealt with – the veteran officer and his department appear headed for a court battle.

Wiegert filed a complaint in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, claiming the St. Louis Police Department violated his First Amendment rights to free speech in revoking approval for his lobbying work on behalf of Show-Me Cannabis, a pro-marijuana group seeking to change Missouri law. The complaint asks the federal court to intervene on his behalf.

“You’ve got a really, really protected constitutional right that’s just being obliterated,” Wiegert’s attorney, Albert Watkins, said.

Secondary jobs are common among St. Louis police officers – many work security in their off-hours, for example. Approval from the department is required.

Wiegert has worked for three years as a lobbyist for the St. Louis Tea Party. On Feb. 17, he submitted a new application to the department, again for work as a lobbyist. The application did not require him to state for whom he would lobby.

The department granted approval on Feb. 25, Watkins said.

Things changed on Friday when a St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist wrote about Wiegert’s job lobbying for Show-Me Cannabis. Executive Director John Payne said Wiegert was lobbying the Missouri Legislature to treat arrests for small amounts of marijuana possession like a traffic ticket, rather than a misdemeanor.

It’s an idea that is already being considered in St. Louis. Alderman Shane Cohn introduced a bill that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana an ordinance violation punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $500, instead of a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Police Chief Sam Dotson declined interview requests but said in a statement that Wiegert does not represent the department in his lobbying.

“His comments are his own and not what is expected of our officers,” Dotson said.

On Tuesday, the department rescinded approval for the lobbying, saying Wiegert should have obtained a business license. Watkins and Payne said that was simply an excuse to force the lobbying to cease.

“This is a clear case of viewpoint discrimination,” Payne said.

Watkins questioned why the department would intervene.

“Sgt. Wiegert is not advocating breaking the law and he is not advocating legalization of marijuana,” Watkins said. “He is simply advocating something the city of St. Louis is advocating right now.”

Wiegert is a former head of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association. In 2009, he was outspoken against a department policy prohibiting officers and civilian employees from having visible tattoos.

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