St. Louis, Mo. – October 18, 2023
After seven years of litigation in the debtors’ prison lawsuit, Thomas, et al. v. City of St. Ann, the federal court has approved a $3.125 million settlement to be distributed amongst over 35,000 people who were jailed by St. Ann between August 9, 2011 and November 14, 2022. The settlement also requires St. Ann to permanently forgive all fines, fees, costs, and surcharges arising out of Municipal Ordinance Violations that were assessed between August 1, 2011, and December 31, 2014 – estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in total.
Read the full court order here.
The federal lawsuit was filed by ArchCity Defenders and Arnold & Porter on August 9, 2016, seeking damages on behalf of plaintiffs who alleged St. Ann routinely violated people’s 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.
It’s estimated that at least twelve neighboring towns used St. Ann’s jail to detain people who could not afford to purchase their freedom. In addition to the alleged debtors’ prison claims, the settlement also resolves jail conditions claims brought against St. Ann in a companion lawsuit, Walker, et al. v. City of St. Ann,that alleged the jail was overcrowded, that human waste often covered the walls and floors, and that the jail lacked sufficient hygiene products and facilities for detainees.
“It was the worst three weeks of my life,” said Donya Pierce, who was arrested and detained by St. Ann police in 2014 for municipal traffic and ordinance violation offenses without a bail hearing. “To be away from my kids for so long – I cried almost every day. I got sick multiple times, and never got any doctors or nurses to check me out. To be treated so badly for traffic violations was insane to me.”
Following the preliminary approval, the settlement administrator will mail postcards to the individual class members. Impacted individuals will have a 120-day period, from October 31, 2023, to February 28, 2024, to file a claim in this case. Potential class members are encouraged to visit stannclassaction.com to view the terms and, if eligible, file a claim for monetary compensation.
Thomas is one of seven class action, debtors’ prison lawsuits ArchCity Defenders and co-counsel have filed against St. Louis municipalities since 2015, and the fourth to reach a settlement so far. In total, the settled lawsuits against Jennings, Normandy, Edmundson, Maplewood, and St. Ann have obtained over $12 million in damages.
Each city has seen a significant drop in municipal court revenue since the filing of debtors’ prison lawsuits against them. In St. Ann, the change is particularly striking.
In 2015, St. Ann’s municipal court generated $3,104,239.70, according to Annual Judicial and Statistical Reports from the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator (OSCA), more than one-third of the city’s annual general fund revenue. Since the lawsuit was filed in 2016, OSCA reports show St. Ann’s municipal court revenue decreased annually, down to $96,181.65 in 2022 (a 93% decrease from 2015), which accounts for less than 1% of the St. Ann’s general fund revenue in 2022.
ArchCity Defenders remains active in protecting individuals’ rights in municipal court through individual representation and is exploring other opportunities for systemic litigation to address the criminalization of poverty as revenue generation. “Even though debtor’s prisons might be disappearing, we have observed other St. Louis area municipalities retooling and recalibrating to find new ways of using municipal ordinance enforcement to generate revenue from their citizens,” said Nathaniel Carroll, Senior Attorney at ArchCity Defenders.
The remaining debtors’ prison lawsuits allege similar claims against Florissant and Ferguson; both lawsuits have been granted class certification and a similar preliminary motion for class settlement has been filed in Florissant.
Angelo Vidal, Communications Fellow, ArchCity Defenders