No one is quite sure when St. Louis began charging $35 to cancel a municipal court warrant. But a deal reached on Monday between the city and thousands of defendants who paid the fee over a seven-year period means it will never be charged again.
The case was one of 12 lawsuits filed by the Saint Louis University legal clinic and a St. Louis-based law firm that challenge warrant recall and similar fees. Though it's one of the last suits filed, it's the first one to settle.
"In this suit, the city has stepped up, and we commend the city for doing this," said Erich Vieth, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "I think this case does send a message to all municipalities that they should abide by Missouri state law and only charge fees that are allowed under Missouri law."
Even more important, Vieth said, the city is not allowed to charge the fee again without authorization from the state and must review all of its municipal court fees to make sure they comply with state law.
"We got from zero to 60 without really noticing it was happening," Vieth said. "We don't want that to happen again."
Circuit Court Judge David Dowd had given initial approval to the settlement in April — the hearing on Monday finalized those terms.
Here's how we got here:
- The city charged $35 to recall the warrant for the first violation, and $10 for each additional warrant. No one knows when the fee originated, but city counselor Mike Garvin said in a telephone interview that it was likely to cover the clerical costs of recalling a warrant when there was a lot of paperwork, and was simply overlooked.
- The city stopped charging the fee in 2014, shortly after the death of Michael Brown put a spotlight on municipal court practices, but it did not offer a refund. Vieth and other attorneys sued in December 2014.
- Anyone who was charged a warrant recall fee between Dec. 11, 2009 (five years before the suit was filed) and Feb. 15, 2016, will get back about 60 percent of what they paid. The city got a 25 percent "discount" for settling the case, and attorneys and the company administering the settlement will also get a cut.
- Any check that isn't cashed within 90 days will revert to the city, which has a fund set aside to pay court judgments.
- The city will finish its review of its court fees within six months, and agrees never to charge the warrant recall fee again.
Judge Dowd commended both sides for reaching the settlement and avoiding litigation. "I believe it is fair and reasonable and in the best interest of the class," he said.
Lawsuits challenging similar fees are pending against Ferguson, Jennings, Pine Lawn, Wellston, Normandy, Kansas City, Florissant and St. John. Vieth said a couple of the municipalities are "actively working" to reach their own settlements.
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