Trial begins for embattled Jackson, Miss. mayor

The federal trial for Jackson, Miss. Mayor Frank Melton began Monday. Melton is accused of violating federal civil rights laws during crime-fighting sweeps with the city's mobile police unit. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which stem from an incident in August 2006 in which he allegedly conducted a search and seizure raid without a warrant in one of the city's low income neighborhoods, reports Reuters.

Melton's July 2008 indictment alleges that Melton and his two bodyguards brought several young men--some of them minors--to a house in an impoverished Jackson, Miss. neighborhood. Melton and his bodyguards ordered the two occupants out of the house at gunpoint and then directed the group of youths to attack and damage the suspected "crackhouse," using sledgehammers and sticks to knock out walls and windows.

Melton's popularity in Jackson has always been divided. Known for his tough-on-crime image and populism, he is often praised for his unorthodox tactics to curb crime. Shortly after taking office, Melton began police-style sweeps of poor, largely black, neighborhoods that soon came under legal scrutiny, reports Reuters. Melton's methods--some of which include warrantless searches of homes and vehicles, unauthorized club raids, carrying guns and concealed weapons, and riding through the inner city with the police department's mobile command center--have come under fire and are labeled an abuse of power. His 2008 indictment joins a growing pile of past indictments, including several weapons charges, lodged at Melton since he took office in 2005.

Several critics have labeled the mayor's crime-fighting tactics as "Melton's Law": the belief that other laws don't apply as long as you're "doing the right thing," something that has earned him a hero status by his supporters as well as much criticism by civil liberty advocates.

In 2006, members of the NAACP and the ACLU accused Melton of civil rights violations in his crusade to stem crime, including racial profiling and infringing upon people's rights by targeting an uninformed segment of the community while on crime sweeps. The ACLU of Mississippi said in 2006 that they had received complaints from Jackson residents that held that Melton created an environment where racial profiling was accepted, due process was ignored, searches were conducted illegally and police brutality was commonplace.

Melton and former bodyguard Michael Recio face three felony charges and a maximum 25-year sentence if convicted. Melton has already been acquitted on state charges in the same incident.