Municipal Courts | St. Louis Public Radio

Municipal Courts

Hundreds of volunteers donned stocking caps and work gloves Saturday to clean up empty lots and complete minor home repairs in University City.

Cold temperatures prevented workers from pouring concrete, but city residents and others from throughout the St. Louis region cleared brush, picked up trash, cleaned gutters and painted railings.

Image of a Ferguson Police car, January 2017
Paul Sableman | Flickr

Ferguson has made good progress in reforming its police department and municipal court, a federal judge said Tuesday, though it’s far from over.

Ferguson’s police and court have been operating under federal oversight for more than a year. The city has written new policies on things like use-of-force and recruiting new officers, but has missed deadlines to implement them.

ArchCity Defenders

The city of Ferguson has decided it will no longer prosecute Fred Watson.

Ferguson’s municipal prosecutor officially dropped the charges Monday against Watson, a Navy veteran who was arrested in 2012 while sitting in his parked car after a basketball game. Ferguson charged him with several ordinance violations, including failure to wear a seatbelt.

Nate Birt | Provided

A team of researchers and service providers in St. Louis County says they've made “substantial progress” toward cutting the number of days people spend in the county jail, but they acknowledge they fell short of their goal.

Mike Brownlee, 32, of Kirkwood, (right) fills out a survey about the municipal court system outside Sunset Hills City Hall. Researchers from Saint Louis University are studying courts in St. Louis County in hopes of addressing inequalities.
File photo | Kameel Stanley | St. Louis Public Radio

As of Saturday, municipal courts across Missouri have had to meet some new operating standards.

The state Supreme Court set the minimum requirements for the court in 2016. Courts must now have a judge available at all times, and cannot charge illegal fines or fees, among other things. The rules were the Supreme Court's response to findings by the U.S. Department of Justice and legal advocacy groups that the municipal courts operated in large part to fund city operations.

Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy stands near a grassy path near South Florissant Road. She says a new state law limiting traffic fine revenue will make it harder for her city to pay for new sidewalks.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

A top Democratic backer of the effort to limit fines and fees in St. Louis County believes Missouri lawmakers will have to play a role in forcing cities to change.

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out parts of a 2015 law that capped the amount of money cities could make from fines and fees and required them to meet minimum standards like having an accredited police department. 

A screenshot of the newly released Your STL Courts website May 2017
Screenshot | yourstlcourts.com

The St. Louis County municipal court system has a new website that developers believe will help reduce arrests of people who don’t show up to court, but detractors say more access to that kind of information doesn’t necessarily make officers’ ticketing proclivities more fair.

Missouri state Auditor Nicole Galloway details her office's audit report of Ferguson's municipal courts on Wed., April 26, 2017.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri's auditor said Wednesday she’s "disheartened" by the results of an audit of Ferguson's municipal court, which found improperly stored records and thousands of dollars in illegal fees.

 

But Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood noted that the audit covered the 2015 fiscal year, before Ferguson signed a federal agreement to reform its courts, and said it was unfair for Galloway’s office to ignore all of the reforms the city has made.

Judge Paul Herbert stands in his courtroom after one of the court's weekly sessions.
Andrea Muraskin | Side Effects

Originally published July 7, 2016, by Side Effects Public Media. 

It’s not something you expect to see in a courtroom: 35 women, chatting, laughing, eating lasagna. But brunch before the session is a weekly tradition at an unusual court in Columbus, Ohio.

Once the plates are cleared away and everyone sits down in a semicircle facing the bench, a probation officer steps to the center of the room, with an empty plastic bin and a big smile.

“You know I love you so much, right?” she says, as she collects everyone’s cell phones, to a chorus of groans.

The city of Pine Lawn is still struggling to properly manage its municipal court.

Nicole Galloway, auditor for the state of Missouri, released the follow-up review on Monday. An previous audit, from June, gave the Pine Lawn court a "poor" rating, which triggered the need for a second look.

"Municipal courts have an obligation to conduct themselves with fairness. This court has a long way to go to meet the standards that any citizen should have of a local government," Galloway said.

(via Flickr/david_shane)

The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing a challenge to a law that has changed rules for municipal courts, in particular banning judges from sending someone to jail for failure to pay a traffic fine.

It also lowered the amount of revenue local governments can get from traffic citations; it capped those revenues at 12.5 percent in St. Louis County and at 20 percent across the rest of Missouri.

Arch City Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey speaking during a 2014 meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

Florissant has become the 16th north St. Louis County municipality to face a federal lawsuit for jailing defendants simply because they couldn't pay a fine or court cost.

The Arch City Defenders filed the class action lawsuit on Monday. It alleges that the five individuals were among hundreds, if not thousands, of defendants "threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement until their frightened family members produced enough cash to buy their freedom, or until City jail officials decided, days or weeks later, to release them free of charge — after it had become clear the City would not be able to extract any money from them."

Maryland Heights resident Dan Hyatt speaks before the Ferguson Commission about his experience dealing with the municipal court system in Breckenridge Hills.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo

Municipal courts across Missouri are starting to figure out how to comply with new operating rules issued by the state Supreme Court.

The high court released the 16-page rule last week. In a speech to the annual meeting of the Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri, Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge, said they "make clear how municipal divisions must operate."

Bill Freivogel, Susan Appleton and Mark Smith discussed pressing legal issues of the day on "St. Louis on the Air."
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

On Monday, St. Louis on the Air’s Legal Roundtable discussed pressing legal issues of the day, including municipal court reform, personal seat licenses and the St. Louis Los Angeles Rams, the Supreme Court case Lynch v. Morales-Santana and veto overrides in Missouri. 

Joining the program:

Sgt. Susie Lorthridge on patrol in Wellston on May 19, 2016.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri state Auditor Nicole Galloway detailed numerous problems with how bonds are collected from people accused of municipal violations in Wellston. She also found that the city collects fees on dismissed cases, which she says violates state law. And she described in a press release how court case records “were disorganized, incomplete, missing and in many cases, inaccurate, with 90 percent of cases reviewed showing conflicting activity between electronic and paper records.”

Angus Kingston | Flickr

A state audit released Wednesday finds that court records in Missouri are not being thoroughly shielded from hackers and other unauthorized users.

The audit identifies potential weaknesses in the Judicial Information System, which is operated by the Office of State Courts Administrator.  The system is used to store case files, information on convictions and sentencing and financial records.

Thirteen St. Louis County cities were hit with a lawsuit this week, accusing them of violating the constitutional rights of people who broke local ordinances. The suit is seeking monetary damages and changes to how the cities operate.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Quinton Thomas saw firsthand what the criminal justice system looked like in St. Louis County municipalities. And what he witnessed wasn’t pretty.

The 28-year-old said he was fined by a number of county municipalities for what he deemed to be minor traffic offenses. When he couldn’t pay, Thomas said he was sent to a jail in deplorable conditions.

Thomas decided to fight back earlier this week. He’s part of a federal lawsuit against 13 St. Louis County cities. 

Members of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment conduct a silent protest during a public hearing on municipal court reform on Nov. 12, 2015.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Lawyers who are leading the effort to reform the municipal courts in St. Louis, tell of injustices they have witnessed in the courts and callous indifference among some of the municipal judges. They say the system is made up of modern-day debtors’ prisons.

They provide examples.

Members of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment conduct a silent protest during a public hearing on municipal court reform on Nov. 12, 2015.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Nearly two years ago, Michael Brown's death brought to light abusive municipal court practices in the St. Louis area. A new report released by auditor Nicole Galloway on Wednesday shows the problems exist statewide.

"We've seen repeated challenges that prevent Missourians from having the municipal courts they deserve," Galloway said in a statement accompanying the report. "Courts should operate efficiently, effectively and fairly, and these audits shine light on problems and make recommendations, so that work can begin toward regaining citizen trust."

St. Louis City Hall
Richie Diesterheft | Flickr

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.

credit cards
Frankieleon | Flickr | http://bit.ly/293yef2

A St. Louis alderman wants to give the city's municipal court a way to cover the cost of processing credit card payments.

It is much more convenient to pay a fine on a credit card all at once, rather than dropping off a payment in person or going to court every week. But the convenience comes at a cost for the court, because credit card companies charge for each transaction.

File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

With only three days to go, a few bigger issues have been moving in the Missouri General Assembly, while everyone waits to see whether the Senate will soon come to a screeching halt.

First, the so-called "sequel" to last year's municipal reform bill is one vote away from being sent to Gov. Jay Nixon.

police car lights
Jason Rojas | Flickr

A follow-up to last year's municipal court reform bill, commonly known as Senate Bill 5, has passed the Missouri House.

This year's measure, Senate Bill 572, would limit fines for minor traffic violations at $300 and limit municipal code violations at $500. Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, carried the bill in the House.

Nate Birt | Provided

Updated with comments from researchers. - A team led by University of Missouri-St. Louis researcher Beth Huebner will get more than $2 million to reduce the population of the St. Louis County jail.

St. Louis County  is one of 11 jurisdictions to receive a grant through the  John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge. Over the next two years, the county and its partners will use the funds to reduce the number of people held at the jail by at least 15 percent.

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Beyond Housing President and CEO Chris Krehmeyer and Normandy Mayor Patrick Green joined host Don Marsh in discussing Senate Bill 5, which deals with municipal court overhaul. Recently, a Cole County judge rejected major parts of the law. More background on that here.

Steakpinball | Flickr

In the past year and a half, St. Louis County’s municipal courts have a handful of self-reforms like recalling warrants and standardizing traffic fines.

 Now, they’re turning their attention to technology for the newest effort at improving the way courts run.

 Officials are developing a smartphone app that literally puts information about municipal courts into people’s pockets. 

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

On Wednesday, St. Louis on the Air hosted a discussion with Rev. Starsky Wilson and Thomas Harvey about municipal court reform. Wilson was a co-chair of the Ferguson Commission and is president and CEO at the Deaconess Foundation. Harvey is the co-founder and executive director of ArchCity Defenders.

Members of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment conduct a silent protest during a public hearing on municipal court reform on Nov. 12, 2015.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

A working group created by the Missouri Supreme Court to recommend changes to the municipal courts is rejecting the idea that the state's highest court can force the smaller ones to consolidate.

Protesters carrying a banner that reads demand constitutional policing work to interrupt a meeting of the Ferguson City Council on February 23, 2016.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

The decision by the Ferguson City Council to reject a proposed consent decree and take a chance in court is no more popular now than it was two weeks ago.

Protesters chanted "no consent decree, bankruptcy!" "no justice, no peace" and called for the resignation of Ferguson Mayor James Knowles and city prosecutor Stephanie Karr. They unfurled a banner demanding constitutional policing as the council members conducted their business. 

Sen. Jill Schupp
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

On the latest edition of the Politically Speaking podcast, Sen. Jill Schupp returns to the show for the third time to talk about the Missouri General Assembly’s fast start.

The Creve Coeur Democrat was elected to the 24th District Senate, which encompasses more than 20 municipalities in St. Louis County. Schupp is part of an eight-person Democratic caucus that’s seen its influence wane as the GOP made gains in the General Assembly’s upper chamber.

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