Suit takes aim at 'debtors' prisons' in St. Louis County cities
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.
The suit accuses these municipalities of “terrorizing” plaintiffs and “many hundreds of others through a deliberate and coordinated scheme established and implemented to fill the municipalities’ coffers by extorting money from poor — disproportionately African-American — people in the St. Louis region, creating a modern-day police state and debtors’ prison scheme that has no place in American society today.”
“It’s been going on many years before now,” said Thomas, one of 11 plaintiffs in the suit. “I just feel that it needs to be stopped or change needs to happen. Because a lot of people have lost jobs, careers, homes and a lot of things because of minor, small traffic violations. And one of the things that I hope to get out of this is to have a change with the justice system here — and to not have people in fear of going to St. Louis County.”
The 13 cities in the suit are: Bel-Ridge, Bellefontaine Neighbors, Beverly Hills, Calverton Park, Cool Valley, Edmundson, Normandy, Pagedale, St. Ann, St. John, Velda City, Velda Village Hills and Wellston. Lawyers with St. Louis-based Arch City Defenders and Washington, D.C.-based Arnold & Porter filed the federal lawsuit Tuesday.
Thomas Harvey is an attorney with Arch City Defenders, which provides legal services to homeless people and the working poor throughout St. Louis. He said the suit is part of a broader effort to transform criminal justice in St. Louis County.
When Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson in August 2014, his death sparked immense focus and scrutiny on that city. This international spotlight culminated in a scathing Department of Justice report about the town’s criminal justice practices — and a federal consent decree aimed at altering how the city operates.
But Harvey said there was a big blind spot to that sort of approach: Fixing Ferguson wouldn’t necessarily make things better for low-income residents of St. Louis if dozens of other cities didn’t change their ways. That’s been a longstanding concern for Harvey and his organization.
“This is an attempt to relieve the sort of criminalization of poverty and black life in our region,” Harvey said. “And just to end this conspiracy to jail people because they’re too poor to make a payment. You’re right that I’ve often said that if we only focused on the city of Ferguson, we’d be missing the broader point. Because there are an additional 80 towns that have their own court. And until all of those courts and police departments end these practices, it won’t really change people’s lives in the region.
“And we’re hoping that this suit will bring about an end to those practices and bring about real change to people’s lives,” he said.
St. Ann at the center
One of the things Harvey said ties the 13 cities together is that they use St. Ann’s jail. He said every one “of the cities that we’ve sued contracts with the city of St. Ann in order to jail people, because they don’t have a jail that’s big enough to hold people overnight.”
Harvey said when some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit arrived at the St. Ann jail, they encountered terrible conditions. One plaintiff, Harvey said, was menstruating at the time and not provided feminine hygiene products. Thomas, the plaintiff mentioned earlier, detailed how food was “unhealthy and nearly inedible.”
For his part, Harvey said these cities are operating modern-day debtors’ prisons.
“There are ways to address the issues that confront our clients that don’t have anything to do with jailing or excessive fines and fees,” he said. “If we want to get serious about public safety, the answer isn’t to assess a fine to someone who’s indigent. The answer is to put them in contact with someone who can help them fix their car, show them a path to get their driver’s license reinstated, help them obtain their vehicle registration.”
St. Louis Public Radio contacted city officials and city attorneys who represented the municipalities in the lawsuit. Some of these people declined to comment, primarily because they hadn’t read the lawsuit yet.
St. Ann city administrator Matt Conley said he briefly reviewed the lawsuit. He strongly disputed the depiction of how his city’s jail operated.
“There were comments in the lawsuit that individuals who have been in our facility have taken issue with the accommodations,” Conley said. “Our jail is relatively modern and very clean. So we’re somewhat mystified by those statements. So at this point, that’s all I can say regarding the lawsuit.”
In addition to seeking monetary damages, the suit is seeking a court order prompting the cities to change their practices. Harvey said this occurred in Jennings, and the results have been very positive.
“If you take a look at what’s happening in Jennings right now, nobody’s being jailed for failing to pay a fine,” Harvey said. “People are not being threatened with jail. Warrants are not being issued when someone is unable to make a payment. If they miss a court date, they’re being sent a letter. They’re getting phone calls. The process is much more fair. That’s resulted in a lower number of people have to go to court or being required to go to court on a daily basis — and fewer people are being held in their jail. We’re hoping that we will end the practice permanently of jailing people because of their poverty.”
Ferguson hit with lawsuit
Meanwhile, Arch City Defenders teamed up with Dowd & Dowd to bring a federal lawsuit against the city of Ferguson.
The lawyers are representing four people who were arrested during protests after Michael Brown’s death. The four plaintiffs, who were acquitted of wrongdoing, accuse the city, prosecutors Stephanie Karr and Patrick Chassaing, and a number of Ferguson police officers of constitutional violations and malicious prosecution. They’re seeking $20 million in compensatory damages.
Jasmine Woods is one of the plaintiffs in the case. She said she was wrongfully arrested “for no reason at all basically” and added that experience provided a disincentive for her to keep protesting.
“Since that day, I’ve lost a lot of respect for the system because I feel that I was targeted — and my rights were taken away,” Woods said. “So I thought that I didn’t really want to get into any more trouble. This little charge, it seemed so little. But it’s taken me through so much over these two years. I really didn’t want to jeopardize my children or another job because of the protesting.”
A spokesman for Ferguson said the city was not commenting on the lawsuit at this time. A message to Karr, who resigned as city attorney and prosectuor recently, was not returned.
Harvey said Ferguson took the protester cases to trial, “even though they knew they had no witnesses to come in and say that anyone had seen this person committing a violation.” He added the way city prosecutors dealt with protesters sent a "chilling" message.
“Prosecuting someone to send a message to a whole group of people who peacefully want to exercise their First Amendment rights is something that we have to take seriously in this country and we can’t let it go further than where it is right now,” Harvey said.
Harvey said he expects the prosecutors to claim they have immunity from this type of lawsuit.
“That’s one of the great weaknesses of our legal system is qualified immunity for people in these positions,” Harvey said. “I think we all know there have been, especially in this last year, multiple allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. You see it all the time in the death penalty. But because prosecutors are able to shield themselves with immunity, they are never held accountable for those acts."
“One of the things that lawyers who care about this work have to do is work on qualified immunity,” he added. “Because when a person who’s been paid to be the prosecuting attorney for a city violates the law, they need to be held accountable as well.”
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