Since 2009, ArchCity Defenders has represented clients entangled in the St. Louis region’s punitive municipal court system. This fundamentally racist system prioritizes extracting money from poor people and Black people, creating a broad need for legal representation. As such, “muni representation” makes up the bulk of our legal services. Based on the thousands of court appearances our attorneys have made, we estimate that nine out of 10 people appearing in St. Louis’ municipal courts do not have an attorney.
Legal representation can make the difference between whether someone can “get their ticket taken care of” or having it become a larger, more expensive problem. Legally, judges must ask whether someone can afford to pay court fines and fees but rarely ask our clients. Instead, judges charge them with staggering fines and fees, and threaten jail time if they are unable to pay them. At least this was the norm between 2010 to 2016.
As a result of the Ferguson Uprising; the ensuing national spotlight on the region’s exploitative court practices; and our debtors’ prison, warrant fee, and cash bail litigation, many St. Louis County municipalities issue fewer tickets and warrants than they did in 2014. Moreover, they collect 90% less revenue from their municipal courts.
In spite of this progress, white supremacy in St. Louis’ municipal courts continues to recalibrate itself and evolve. Though some things seem “not as bad,” many of our clients regularly report avoiding driving through certain areas of St. Louis County due to the new abuses manufactured by the legal system. For many of these clients, getting trapped by the municipal court system feels like entering a marathon hours after it started, and being expected to keep up with those who began earlier.
Through our holistic legal advocacy, here are some ways we empower them to catch up and reach the finish line:
Holistic Direct Services
We get to know our clients. In addition to working with them to resolve their warrants and reduce court fines and fees, we listen to them, seeking to identify other opportunities for support. Our clients benefit from working in concert with both our Legal teams and our Social Services team.
On the Social Services team, our case managers take a housing-centered approach to connect clients with assistance (e.g., rental, transportation, public benefits, utilities). We provide wraparound social services to help our clients get back on their feet, reach some sense of stability, and be rooted in a place where they can activate their dreams and live out their lives.
Systemic Civil Rights Litigation
In 2014, ArchCity Defenders and co-counsel filed a series of five class action lawsuits challenging the municipal courts’ practice of charging an improper fee when removing a warrant from someone’s record. The last case to be settled was in March 2020. In total, thousands of class members were eligible to receive $3,307,705 in settlement funds. While municipalities never admitted wrongdoing, these lawsuits stopped courts from charging this fee.
Warrant Fee class action cases:
- Pruitt v. Wellston (2014)
- Carter v. Ferguson (2014)
- Eldridge v. St. John (2014)
- Lampkin v. Jennings (2014)
- Wann v. City of St. Louis (2014)
Malicious prosecution case:
- Phillips v. Ferguson (2016)
Media & Policy Advocacy
In partnership with community members and organizations, our Communications team engages in media and policy advocacy to frame local and national conversations about municipal courts. Through centering and amplifying our clients’ voices, we expose injustice, combat misinformation, and advocate for ideas that improve the lives of people who are most impacted.
We publish multimedia (e.g., videos, reports, know-your-rights guides) that highlight client stories, provide context, and imagine beyond what currently exists. Some examples include:
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A north St. Louis County municipality fines like no other. Some residents say ‘leave me alone.’
Settlement Reached with Ferguson Over Court Fees
The Washington Post
Ferguson protesters claim malicious prosecution in $20 million lawsuit