As important as it is for the DOJ to confirm what poor people and black people living in this region have known for years, it’s equally important to note that even if Ferguson adopts every single recommendation, none of that changes anything about the way the other 90 municipalities operate around it.
Furthermore, none of it changes anything about our racist history, the continuing systemic racism, and the fact that we have criminalized poverty in America.
There is more work to be done here and across the country.
Here’s what we’ve done since August, 2014 to try to make life better for the most vulnerable among us:
Overall, we observed that the poor, particularly poor minorities, suffer significantly in their forced dealings with St. Louis’ municipal court system. Expired vehicle registration, outdated inspections, driving without insurance—while non-impoverished people may occasionally be ticketed for such violations, the tickets are generally nothing more than a minor inconvenience or annoyance. For the poor living in North County St. Louis, these issues may exist as a consequence of their lack of money, and all of them can come to a head in a single traffic stop and quickly lead to daunting fines and oftentimes the revocation of driving privileges.
What is more, poor minorities are pulled-over more frequently, they are let go without a ticket less frequently, and they are in all likelihood the only group to see the inside of a jail cell for minor ordinance violations. Matters are worsened by those involved in municipal government choosing to close courts to the public and allowing the incarceration of people for the failure to pay fines. These policies push the poor further into poverty, prevent the homeless from accessing the housing, treatment, and jobs they so desperately need to regain stability in their lives, and violate the Constitution. These violations are ongoing and they implicate the most fundamental guarantees of the Constitution. They are the product of a disordered, fragmented, and inefficient approach to criminal justice in St. Louis County. Municipalities are failing to afford indigent defendants legal counsel and refusing to make reasonable bond assessments. The municipal court system fans the flames of racial tension, oppression, and disenfranchisement by allowing municipalities to appropriate the courts to act as governmental debt-collection agencies and implicitly charging courts with ensuring the municipalities’ fine-generated revenues are sufficient to maintain an inefficient governmental operations.
ArchCity Defenders and Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics sent a letter to the Mayor of Ferguson requesting that he amnesty all pending charges and remit all fines and fees in the City of Ferguson as a “first step towards reconciliation” within his community. We presented the legal authority under which he could implement the suggested policy. The Mayor never responded to the letter.
Again teaming with the law clinics, ArchCity Defenders articulated one of its longstanding proposals to proportion fines to income at the outset of a case. Unlike the current practice, where no inquiry is made into a person’s ability to pay fines, this rule change would require courts to make a determination of an individual’s income at the time of assessment. This single important change could have an enormous impact on the lives of the poor in our region and save courts untold time processing payments, issuing warrants, and unconstitutionally incarcerating people because of their inability to pay.
In the letter, we noted that the United States Supreme Court held that indigent defendants can not be imprisoned for failure to pay a fine when the failure is due solely to their financial inability to pay on equal protection grounds. Williams v. Illinois,399 U.S. 235, 240-41 (1970); Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395, 397-98 (1971). Further, we called their attention to the Supreme Court of Missouri’s holding that an indigent defendant who is unable to pay may not be incarcerated as a consequence of his or her poverty. Hendrix v. Lark, 482 S.W.2d 427, 431 (Mo. 1972). In order to avoid this scenario, we proposed a revision to Missouri Supreme Court Rule 37.65.
Under Missouri Law, municipalities are prohibited from collecting more than 30% of their overall revenue from traffic related adjudicated in their municipal courts. In order for the state to determine whether a municipality has exceeded the cap, municipalities are required to file a report with the state after the end of their fiscal year. Under a recent amendment to the law, a provision was added that states that any municipality that fails to timely submit such reporting “shall suffer an immediate loss of jurisdiction of the municipal court of said city, town, village, or county on all traffic-related charges.” RSMo. 302.341
ArchCity Defenders and Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics have joined to bring a class action lawsuit against the City of Bel-Ridge along with a Writ of Prohibition, alleging it has been operating a court without jurisdiction since June of 2014 as a result of failing to timely file the required reports.
In the course of our investigation, we found that clients were being charged fees that were not allowable under Missouri law. We have joined the Campbell Law Firm and Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics in filing class action lawsuits against Ferguson, a city at the center of the focus on policing and municipal courts, as well as Beverly Hills, Fenton, Jennings, Pine Lawn, Wellston and Velda City.
The suits claim that fees for warrants are not authorized by state law. The lawsuits call for a judgment that the fees violate state law, an accounting of who paid the illegal fees and how much, and for reimbursement to defendants who were forced to pay the fees to avoid jail time or warrants. The suits also include a claim under the Missouri Merchandise Practices Act, the state’s consumer fraud statute, alleging the cities attempted to deceive defendants into paying the fees.
ArchCity Defenders joined Prof. Brendan Roediger of St. Louis University School of Law and Denise Lieberman of the Advancement Project and won a temporary restraining order against St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and the Missouri State Highway Patrol requiring them to limit the use of chemical munitions against protesters.
ArchCity Defenders’ Executive Director Thomas Harvey addressed the Ferguson Commission on the issue of the systemic racism in the municipal courts. As a result of that appearance, he was invited to join the working group on municipal courts through the Ferguson Commission and to prepare a report for the Governor by September 2015.
Complaint–Ferguson Debtors’ Prison (FILE STAMPED)
In addition to the illegal fines and fees that have been charged, our investigation uncovered long periods of incarceration for people whose only “crime” was the inability to pay. We have joined Equal Justice Under Law and the legal clinics at Saint Louis University to bring class action lawsuits against Ferguson and Jennings alleging violations of the 1st, 6th, 8th, and 14th amendment. The suits allege that indigent people were jailed solely for not being able to make a monetary payment and held in deplorable conditions in the Cities of Ferguson and Jennings until they or their family scraped together enough cash to buy their freedom.
Further, our work has led to responses from:
State Senator Schmitt
State Senator, Eric Schmitt, a Republican from the town of Glendale in suburban St. Louis has introduced legislation that would revise Missouri Statute 302.341.1 by limiting revenue earned from traffic related ordinance violations to 10% of general revenue. Senator Schmitt’s bill would require excess revenue to be given over to the local schools. Further, exceeding 10% of overall revenue would automatically trigger a ballot initiative allowing for the dis-incorporation of the municipality in question.
The Missouri Supreme Court
Chief Justice Mary Rhodes Russell made municipal courts a key part of her state of the judiciary address in January of 2015. She called attention to the impression that citizens have of their courts when they act as sources of revenue instead of justice:
“From a local municipal division to the state Supreme Court, Missouri’s courts should be open and accessible to all. Courts should primarily exist to help people resolve their legal disputes. If they serve, instead, as revenue generators for the municipality that selects and pays the court staff and judges – this creates at least a perception, if not a reality, of diminished judicial impartiality.”
While the Supreme Court declined to follow our lead and order fines to be proportioned to income, the Chief Justice announced a change in the rules to require the following: “When a fine is assessed and it appears to the judge that the defendant does not have at that time the present means to pay the fine, the judge shall order a stay of execution on the payment of the fine”
Governor Jay Nixon
Following the death of Mike Brown, Governor Nixon established the Ferguson Commission and charged it with preparing reports proposing reform to policing, municipal courts, and education. Along with Saint Louis University School of Law Clinics we had an audience with the Governor in November urging him to take Executive Action to reform the way Agencies in the state implement and enforce Municipal Court rulings. In his State of the State address on January 21, 2015, he called for legislation to reform the municipal court system in order to bring about systemic change. In an address to the Missouri Bar Association in March of 2015, Gov. Nixon followed up on this call for reform after the release of the DOJ report.
Reforms in Individual Municipalities
The report has produced the first steps of meaningful reform. The City of St. Louis recalled over 200,000 outstanding warrants and proportioned fines to income for the poor. St. Louis County Presiding Judge Maura McShane ordered municipal courts to be open to the public, a practice that is in clear violation of the United States and Missouri Constitutions. Municipal court Judge Frank Vatterott is the head of a committee for municipal court reform. He has adopted a few of our proposals. A local non-profit, Beyond Housing, has proposed its own municipal court reforms, including many of our suggestions. Velda City offered to dismiss all pending cases upon a payment of $300. Ferguson eliminated two ordinances charging fees not authorized by state law, eliminated the warrant recall fee, and created a new docket to address people who are struggling to make their payments.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board
The Editorial Board of the Post-Dispatch, in addition to its award winning coverage of the events in Ferguson, has frequently and consistently echoed its support for reforms in the Municipal Court system in the state. Along with professors from Saint Louis University, the co-founders and the Executive Director and Managing Attorney of ArchCity Defenders have written several op-eds to the paper regarding the issues surrounding the events in Ferguson and St. Louis and the need for further reforms..