- 2018 Outstanding Organization – Empower Missouri
- 2017 Alderman Gregory Carter Community Champion – Generate Health
- 2017 Up & Coming Lawyer – Missouri Lawyers’ Weekly: Jacki Langum, Director of Advocacy
- 2017 Harvard Club – Community Service Award – Harvard Club of Saint Louis
- 2016 Ethics in Action Award – The Ethical Society of St. Louis
- 2016 Injustice Anywhere Award – The National Benevolent Association
- 2016 Trial Lawyers of the Year Award – Public Justice Institute: Thomas Harvey and Michael-John Voss, Co-Founders
- 2016 What’s Right with the Region Awards’ Improving Racial Equity and Social Justice Honoree – FOCUS St. Louis
- 2015 YLS Pro Bono Award – Missouri Bar Association: Stephanie Lummus, Managing Attorney
- 2014 New Leaders in Advocacy Award Honorees – National Association of Legal Aid and Defenders (NLADA)
- 2014 Best Lawyers Award – Riverfront Times’ Best of St. Louis
- 2013 Atticus Finch Award Honorees – Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (MACDL)
- 2012 Spirit of Justice Award Honorees – Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis (BAMSL)
- 2011 Excellence in Pro Bono Award – Saint Louis University School of Law, Public Interest Law Group (PILG)
- 2011 Pro Bono Wall of Fame– Missouri Bar Association: Michael-John Voss, Co-Founder
- 2010 Diamond Level in Pro Bono Hours – Missouri Bar Association: Michael-John Voss, Co-Founder
ArchCity Defenders in the National News
Lawsuit Accuses Missouri Towns of Squeezing Money Out of Poor People, NBC Nightly News
“We can’t hold people in jail because they’re too poor to pay a debt.” – Blake Strode, Attorney, ArchCity Defenders
Are police ticketing practices creating a tinder box in black community?, CNN, Sara Sidner
The new class action lawsuit accuses 13 cities surrounding Ferguson of the same practice: policing for profit on the backs of black and poor people. Attorneys for non-profit organization ArchCity Defenders, which filed the suit, call what is happening the equivalent of a debtors’ prison. Traffic violations are not punishable with jail time, yet if fines aren’t paid, a warrant can be issued for an arrest.
Thomas Harvey, Executive Director, said of the Defendant municipalities’ practices, “You’re essentially asking somebody ‘How much money do you have to buy your freedom?”
Class-Action Lawsuit Accuses 13 Missouri Cities Of Running ‘Debtors Prisons, NPR: All Things Considered
A recently filed class-action lawsuit alleges 13 municipalities in Missouri have been abusing their poorer citizens by ticketing minor infractions and then imposing irrational fines and jail time when they can’t pay the tickets. NPR’s Audie Cornish talks to Thomas Harvey, executive director of Arch City Defenders, the group leading the suit.
A class-action civil rights lawsuit filed late Tuesday alleges that more than a dozen St Louis-area municipalities are engaged in the discriminatory and unconstitutional practice of jailing people for unpaid debts in order to raise state revenue, a situation the suit says amounts to a system of modern-day “debtors’ prisons” that primarily affects poor residents of color.
A separate lawsuit filed on Tuesday, which was also initiated by ArchCity Defenders along with the St Louis-based Dowd & Dowd law firm, challenges how law enforcement handled charges against protesters. That legal action, also filed in federal court in Missouri, is asking for $20m in compensation and an acknowledgment that the city of Ferguson engaged in the malicious prosecution of four individuals who they say peacefully protested at a vigil just two days after Michael Brown’s 2014 death.
Groundbreaking Lawsuit Targets ‘Extortionist’ Cities Near Ferguson That Lock Poor People in Cages, Huffington Post and St. Louis American
“The lawsuit accuses the municipalities of operating “de facto debtors prisons” used “as a tool to cow poor people into financing municipal government.” The system places poor defendants into a “Kafkaesque web of indignities and incarceration that plunge the victim ever deeper into poverty,” the suit says. Inmates incarcerated by St. Ann, the suit alleges, are held under horrific conditions that include overcrowded cells, “reused” blankets, “disgusting and unsanitary” mattresses, and “unhealthy and nearly inedible” food. Inmates were not allowed to shower until they had been held at the jail for a week, the lawsuit says, and trash piles in cells gave off a “very pungent odor.”
‘“As in the other ‘failure to comply’ cases pursued by Defendants, at no time during the investigatory process or in the subsequent criminal prosecution of Plaintiffs did the Defendants ever have any evidence that Plaintiffs engaged in criminal conduct,” the lawsuit states. ‘Nevertheless, Defendants arrested Plaintiffs, held them in jail for 24 hours, and pursued criminal charges against Plaintiffs up to and including trial, without any probable cause to do so, based solely on the fact that Plaintiffs had been arrested.'”
Lead plaintiff, Quinton Thomas, describes the experience of driving as “just fear. You know, you have your siblings in the car with you, coming from a family event, and you know in the back of your mind that if I was to get pulled over, I could get taken to jail.”
“’Because they generate so much revenue, many towns in our region attempt to squeeze every dollar possible out of defendants and their families by jailing citizens who are not criminals, and who are not a threat to society.’” – Thomas Harvey, ArchCity Defenders, Co-Founder and Executive Director
“Allison Nelson says she’s had to put on hold her dreams to join the Navy. The recruiter says she can’t enlist until she clears up her outstanding warrants, which would require paying hundreds of dollars she says she doesn’t have.‘ This is holding so many of these young black kids back, it’s ridiculous…They can’t even get a job because they can’t even get a background check, because they have a warrant for traffic tickets only.'”
Debtors Prisons are Illegal in America. Missouri Locked Me up in One Anyway, The Guardian, Nicole Bolden
“If you go to court and say you can’t pay, they’ll hold you and lock you up. If I’m sitting in jail, I definitely can’t pay you – but they don’t care. It’s all about the money – but they’re spending money and I’m losing money. Everybody loses. We all lose.”
St. Louis County is a web of 90 municipalities. For those with unpaid traffic debts and arrest warrants in multiple towns, a trip to one jail often means a journey, over days or weeks, through others as each jurisdiction seeks a payment for release until a court date or a payment of old fines.
“’Our study…showed that individuals who are African-American…are exploited because of their financial inability to pay certain fines and costs…If they don’t have that ability to pay…a warrant is issued for their arrest, and they become incarcerated.’”– Michael-John Voss, ArchCity Defenders, Co-Founder and COO
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For updates from ArchCity Defenders attorneys, interns, and volunteers see our blog.