St. Louis, Mo. – January 3, 2024
Yesterday, the federal court preliminarily approved a $2.89 million settlement to be distributed amongst over 85,000 people who were jailed by and or paid fines to Florissant between October 31, 2011, and February 1, 2023. For members of the jailed classes, settlement money will be distributed based on the number of hours the individual class member spent detained in the Florissant jail, with those who spent more time in jail receiving larger portions of the settlement.
The settlement also requires Florissant to do four things: permanently forgive all unpaid fees from traffic violations between October 31, 2011 and December 31, 2019, which ArchCity Defenders estimates to be several hundred thousand dollars in debt forgiveness; eliminate the use of “bond schedules”; provide all arrested persons with unconditional access to indigency forms and, unless released, a timely indigency hearing no later than 24 hours after the arrested person is booked; and uphold the right to counsel for individuals held in jail and brought before the municipal judge.
Read the court order here.
The federal lawsuit was filed on December 13, 2016 and litigated by ArchCity Defenders, Tycko & Zavareei LLP, and Keane Law LLC, seeking damages on behalf of plaintiffs who alleged Florissant, like other St. Louis municipalities which have settled similar claims, routinely violated their constitutional rights through its scheme of illegally jailing people without inquiring into their ability to pay and using such unconstitutional jailing, and the threat of future re-incarceration, to extract fines and fees.
This insidious practice from Florissant and other area municipal courts devastated the poor in the city and surrounding area. Thousands were forced to take from their disability checks or sacrifice money that is desperately needed by their families for food, diapers, clothing, rent, and utilities to pay ever-increasing court fines, fees, costs, and surcharges arising from minor offenses. Of course, the scheme was extremely profitable for Florissant, which generated millions through its municipal court. However, the city denies all allegations and has not admitted to any wrongdoing.
“For me, it was a lifechanging experience,” said Allison Nelson, one of the suit’s lead plaintiffs. At 24 years old, Ms. Nelson had been jailed twice by Florissant because she could not afford to pay fines from traffic tickets. “To hold money over someone’s head like that, especially with me being as young as I was – that was crazy to me. So that’s why I was glad to be a part of this, to stick up for everybody.”
Pending final approval from the Court, the settlement administrator will mail settlement payments to class members’ last address on file. Class members should update and or verify their mailing address as soon as possible. A settlement website and phone number are forthcoming for this purpose.
Florissant, the largest municipality in St. Louis County by population, is the sixth of seven St. Louis area municipalities to resolve debtors’ prison claims brought by ArchCity Defenders. Including Baker, the settled lawsuits against Jennings, Normandy, Edmundson, Maplewood, St. Ann, and Florissant have obtained nearly $16 million in damages.
The last remaining debtors’ prison lawsuit alleges similar claims against the City of Ferguson and has been granted class certification.
Angelo Vidal, Communications Fellow, ArchCity Defenders
Z Gorley, Communications Director, ArchCity Defenders