The killing of Michael Brown in August 2014 publicized and intensified what has been an ongoing conversation about justice in St. Louis County. Protesters and citizens have sought justice not only for the Brown family, but also for the harms faced by people everyday in a system with two distinct standards of justice, one for the rich and one for the poor. The pernicious and ongoing problems with the region’s municipal court’s financially and racially motivated practices have been identified as a root cause of the widespread mistrust between government and citizens.
These practices affect citizens like Donya Pierce, a 26 year old mother of two, who was stopped while leaving the parking lot of a Walgreen’s because she forgot to turn on her headlights. Over the course of the stop, the officer issued her citations for driving while suspended, failing to turn on her headlights, failing to produce a driver’s license, and no proof of insurance. She was then put in jail upon a bond of $650 and told she would be jailed for at least three days because she could not afford to make a monetary payment.
In April of 2015, ArchCity Defenders and Equal Justice Under Law filed suit against the City of Velda City for their unlawful bail scheme. As a result of Velda City’s policies, people like Donya, who cannot afford a monetary payment are caged when a wealthier person would be set free. The purpose of this lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the national non-profit civil rights organization Equal Justice Under Law, was to create systemic change on behalf of the poor and communities of color most directly impacted by the abuses of this unconstitutional bail system. These issues are not limited to Velda City, but rather exist throughout the region and the nation. Thus, Arch City Defenders also has open litigation throughout the region, and is proud to see our Velda City Case being used as a model for similar suits elsewhere.
In December 2016, a federal judge approved the terms of a landmark debtors’ prison class action brought by ArchCity Defenders, Saint Louis University Law School’s Legal Clinic, and Civil Rights Corp against the City of Jennings. The terms of the Jennings’ settlement are enforceable in Federal Court and end illegal practices such as cash bail, debtors’ prisons, and payment dockets. The settlement is for $4.7 million and includes debt forgiveness of approximately $2 million. While ArchCity Defenders’ clients will receive the highest per diem pay out in a debtors’ prison case to date, it is merely a drop in the bucket for the decades long, inter-generational damage that families have suffered.
To learn about the resolution of the Velda City case, the Jennings settlement, and our other ongoing cases, read on below:
Ending Debtors’ Prisons
December 14, 2016
ArchCity Defenders, Saint Louis University Law School’s Legal Clinic, and Civil Rights Corp settled a historic debtors’ prison class action lawsuit against the City of Jennings, a town that neighbors Ferguson, Missouri. The landmark $4.7M settlement includes terms enforceable in Federal Court and provides a model for meaningful reform for St. Louis’ municipal courts. Following the ruling by Federal Court Judge Jackson, ArchCity Defenders’ Executive Director and Co-Founder Thomas Harvey, shared, “I’m happy about the agreement but there is so much more to do for people who have been ensnared and exploited by the system, in order to help them get back to some semblance of stability in their lives, and that’s a stark reminder that we have to get back to work. The amount of money that we can secure with these settlements, pales in comparison to the damages that people have survived. Until the legal system begins to treat poor people and black people with a modicum of respect and with the humanity they deserve, we’re going to keep fighting this fight.” Click here to read the full news release.
December 6, 2016
ArchCity Defenders has filed a federal debtors’ prison lawsuit on behalf of Ms. Nicole Bolden, a mother and St. Louis resident, against the City of Foristell in St. Charles County, Missouri, for illegally jailing Ms. Bolden for her inability to pay traffic tickets and fines. This is the first debtors’ prison lawsuit filed against St. Charles County by ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm, and reveals the extensive nature of the discriminatory practices that ensnare poor people and black people in the region, causing catastrophic consequences for their families. Click here to read the full news release.
November 1, 2016
ArchCity Defenders has filed a federal class action lawsuit against the City of Maplewood for implementing and enforcing an illegal, racially biased cash bail system that exploits low-income people in order to generate revenue. When citizens call Maplewood’s court, a voicemail recording states that a person cannot cancel an arrest warrant unless they make a cash payment. Maplewood’s “pay-to-play” system represents a new variation on an old theme. This paywall blocks access to Maplewood’s justice system, thereby creating a “pay-to-play” system whereby only people with money can access the court. Click here to read the full news release.
October 31, 2016
ArchCity Defenders continues to fight to end cash bail, debtors’ prisons, and the criminalization of poverty with a new federal class action lawsuit against the City of Florissant and in collaboration with Tycko and Zavareei, LLP, a Washington DC-based class action law firm. The lawsuit alleges the City of Florissant operated a debtors’ prison and subjected the named plaintiffs and thousands of class members to abject suffering while jailed for their poverty. Click here to read the full news release.
August 9, 2016
ArchCity Defenders announced a collaboration with Arnold & Porter, an international D.C. based law firm, to file a federal class action lawsuit simultaneously against thirteen municipalities located in St. Louis County. This lawsuit alleges a coordinated, systematic effort by Defendants, through police and courts, to jail people for their poverty and deprive thousands of St. Louis residents of their rights under the U.S. Constitution. Click here to read the full news release.
February 8, 2015
Twenty citizens of St. Louis County filed class action suits in Federal Court claiming that their civil rights have been violated by the cities of Ferguson and Jennings. These citizens were jailed in deplorable conditions for unpaid fines, costs, and fees for traffic tickets and other minor ordinance violations. The suit against Ferguson has eleven plaintiffs; the suit against Jennings has nine plaintiffs. These lawsuits are the latest in a rash of litigation challenging the abusive practices of the municipalities’ police and courts which affect disproportionately people of color and the poor. ArchCity Defenders joined with Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinic, and Civil Rights Corp to represent the plaintiffs and class members. To read more click here.
Ending Cash Bail
November 1, 2016
Maplewood’s unlawful “warrant recall bond” acts as a paywall that bars access to the court. ArchCity Defenders files lawsuit against City of Maplewood for “pay-to-play” cash bail system that has violated the civil rights of thousands of people.
ArchCity Defenders has filed a federal class action lawsuit against the City of Maplewood for implementing and enforcing an illegal, racially biased cash bail system that exploits low-income people to generate revenue for the City. Maplewood issues many thousands of arrest warrants every year for failure to pay minor traffic fines, or failure to appear at a traffic hearing. When a citizen calls Maplewood’s court, however, a voicemail recording states that a person cannot cancel an arrest warrant unless they personally make a cash payment to the city—the only way to avoid arrest is to pay, whether you have the money or not. Maplewood’s so-called “warrant recall bonds” represent a new variation on an old theme. The bond paywall blocks access to Maplewood’s justice system, and creates a “pay-to-play” system whereby only those with money can even get past the courthouse door. The full news release is available here.
To read the full complaint:
On, June 3, 2015, Federal Court Judge Henry Autrey signed an order implementing a declaratory judgment and federal court injunction, affirming the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause constitutional principle that no person may be held in a cage after an arrest because the person is too poor to make a monetary payment.
“This order will change the lives of poor people in the region. We’ve been putting poor and mostly black people in jail over traffic tickets in St. Louis and across the country,” ArchCity Defenders’ Executive Director Thomas Harvey said. “We have to end our addiction to criminalizing poverty, perpetuating our racist history, and building our economies on the backs of the poor.”
Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law stated: “The basic constitutional rights at stake are very clear. It violates fundamental and longstanding principles of equality and fairness at the core of our legal system to keep a human being in a cage because of her poverty.”
The court order also includes policy changes that could serve as a model for courts across the region and the country, including:
- Elimination of secured money bail;
- Immediate release upon recognizance after booking;
- Implementation of a 4 step process to avoid jailing after a missed court date;
- Ending practice of holding arrestees for other cities for more than 4 hours;
- Ending the practice of impounding an arrestee’s car when the person can designate a licensed driver to take the vehicle.
To read the full settlement or the complaint:
To see how the case is being used in other cities:
To read the complaint in St. Ann:
For media coverage of the case against St. Ann:
St. Ann Courts Violates Rights of Poor, Alleges Lawsuit, KMOV St Louis, Mugo Odigwe
Illegal Fines and Fees: Ferguson, Beverly Hills, Fenton, Jennings, Pine Lawn, and Velda City
In addition to the very real and exorbitant fines and fees our clients are faced with in the municipal court system, our clients were also 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, Beverly Hills, Fenton, Jennings, Pine Lawn, Wellston and Velda City. The suits claim that fees for warrants are not authorized by state law. We are calling for a judgment that declares the fees illegal, an accounting of pervasive these fees are and their cost to the citizenry, 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. Citizens working hard to pay of their balances to the municipal courts have enough challenges without the addition of illegitimate and illegal fines and fees
To read the complaint:
December 23, 2016
ArchCity Defenders has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Bruce Franks, Jr., a resident of St. Louis, Missouri and State Representative Elect for the 78th District who won his seat after a revote following allegations of election fraud. The suit alleges that Franks was brutally beat, kicked, and pepper sprayed while acting as a Peacemaker at a protest in the City of Berkeley, Missouri two years ago. In the complaint, ArchCity Defenders allege police officers from the City of Berkeley and Saint Louis County used excessive force, assaulted and battered Mr. Franks, all in violation of Mr. Franks’ Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Mr. Franks has suffered permanent physical injuries and damage and asks for monetary relief. A link to the full news release can be found here.
November 22, 2016
ArchCity Defenders has filed a civil rights claim against St. Louis Metropolitan Police and the Board of Police Commissioners in St. Louis City, on behalf of Scott O’Rourke, a peaceful protester who was unlawfully detained, threatened, and violently attacked by St. Louis Metropolitan Police officers. Furthermore, Defendants Detective David King and Detective Steven Burle are charged with attempting to cover up the brutal actions by fabricating additional charges against Mr. O’Rourke, of which he was acquitted. A copy of the filed complaint can be found here.
Tear Gas Temporary Restraining Order
Many of the iconic images of last summer’s protests depict the human cost of the police’s use of tear gas on protesters.Tear gas is a chemical weapon that causes tears, pain, vomiting, and even blindness. Despite being banned for use in warfare in 1993, it is still legal for domestic “riot” control. In response, ArchCity Defenders, Prof. Brendan Roediger of St. Louis University School of Law, and Denise Liberman of the Advancement Project filed for a temporary restraining order against St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and the Missouri Highway Patrol. The suit alleged that the police’s actions violated protesters’ first amendment rights.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”
In December of 2014, the United States District Court agreed and granted the temporary restraining order. This an important victory that protects the constitutional right of citizens of St. Louis County to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
To read the complaint: