Lawsuits Against 'Debtors Prisons' In St. Louis County Drag On
Five years ago this month, the nonprofit legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders and its allies opened a new line of attack on what they viewed as the injustice of the municipal court system in St. Louis County.
They filed the first of what would become seven federal lawsuits accusing St. Louis area municipalities of running modern-day debtors prisons. The lawsuits sought major changes to the way the cities used their municipal court systems and financial compensation for those harmed.
One city — Jennings — decided to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. But it was the outlier.
The region’s use of municipal courts had been under increasing scrutiny since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson in August 2014.
“We saw grassroots efforts, people taking to the streets and that being really the driver for change, but we thought that we had something to offer in terms of this systemic litigation,” said Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity.
ArchCity and its allies began contacting people who had been affected, telling them they were looking to force change through the courts, and asking them to spread the word.
The message made its way to Keilee Fant.
“A friend called me and she was like, ‘Keilee, I met a lawyer, and he’s meeting up at my house, and I really want you to come because I think he can help us,’” Fant said. “I had warrants all over the place, I was tired, I was like, 'Nothing beats a failure; I’m going to try this.'”
Fant, 42, a native of Kinloch, had a common experience with the region’s municipal courts.
She’d be pulled over, usually for a minor traffic violation. A computer check would reveal that she had a warrant out for her arrest from another small city because she couldn’t pay the fines and fees from an earlier traffic stop.
Fant cycled in and out of various north county jails, including Ferguson's, for 20 years. She said she usually started in Ferguson because that would be her longest stay.
“Pretty much everywhere else you might be there less,” she said.
Fant, who is a certified nursing assistant, lost several jobs, a car and an apartment to those stays in jail, which also took her away from the nine children she's raising as a single mother. Adding to the indignity, she said, the jails were often filthy and freezing, and the guards abusive. The stays would end only when her family could raise enough money to bail her out.
Taking the courts to court
“If you know it’s right, you’re supposed to do it,” she said. “Right is right, and wrong is wrong.”
The suits against Jennings and Ferguson were both filed on Feb. 8, 2015. The five others, against St. Ann, Florissant, Maplewood, Normandy and Edmundson, were filed later. Except for the filing dates, the similarities ended quickly for Ferguson and Jennings.
Within 18 months, Jennings settled for nearly $5 million, after what were described by the parties in court documents as “substantial” and “adversarial” negotiations. About 2,000 people, including Fant, received checks based on the number of days they were behind bars because of unpaid fines and fees. The city also forgave all unpaid fines and fees, and agreed to evaluate how much people could pay when setting bonds.
With a settlement check of several thousand dollars, Fant was able to pay bills, and buy and properly register a car.
“Money is always good, but unveiling unjust things, that’s way more important,” she said.
‘They were too comfortable in it’
A federal judge accepted the deal in the Jennings case before ArchCity filed its final two lawsuits. There was hope that the relatively quick settlement would set the tone for the others.
But the remaining cities appear to be taking their cue from Ferguson instead.
“In different filings over the course of the lawsuit, they’ve made arguments that the city itself can’t be held responsible because it was the court, which is an arm of the state,” Strode said. “To date, we’ve been able to win on that issue. It’s hard to suss out based on the different statements what exactly they believe about what happened and whose fault it was.”
Fant was not surprised by Ferguson’s decision to dig in.
“It was just too much wrong done. They were too comfortable in it,” she said. “I actually said, ‘Ferguson will fight 10 years,’ and it’s only been five.”
Ferguson officials said they do not comment on ongoing litigation. The lawyer who represented Jennings declined to say why the city settled so quickly. Phyllis Anderson, a member of the City Council that voted to accept the settlement in 2016, said she likely went with what the lawyer told her would be a good deal.
Cost of settling vs. fighting
Like any defendant, cities are doing a cost-benefit analysis, said Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan and the founder and director of the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse.
“The question is, what’s a judge going to make us do, what do we want to do, are we going to win or lose if we go to the judge, how can we get the most control, and how can we minimize our exposure?” she said.
Insurance coverage is also part of the calculation. That’s a big question mark in Ferguson — a lawsuit filed by the local municipal trust that provides insurance to the city argues its policy doesn’t cover class-action lawsuits. Two other cities facing debtors prison lawsuits are part of the same trust, so any ruling could have ripple effects.
Ferguson is also weighing its future existence, city officials said. In addition to the federal lawsuit over debtor’s prisons, it is facing a state class-action lawsuit over alleged illegal fines and fees that could cost the city $2 million. It’s also under a federal consent decree that requires major changes to its police department and municipal courts.
“In the first three years, the city has spent $1.1 million” to implement the decree, said interim City Manager Jeffrey Blume in January at a quarterly update on the city’s progress. “In the next three years, it anticipates $1 million. The city has no more significant revenue sources available to it. It has no other positions it can eliminate without detrimentally impacting service levels, causing population and revenue losses.”
Without a positive resolution to those court cases, he said, the city would “need to seriously consider dissolution.”
There’s one other major factor that cities often forget to consider, Schlanger said.
“They get their backs up, and they are so convinced that they don’t want to pay any money to the plaintiffs that they forget that defending the lawsuit could be just as costly,” she said.
Exact figures for Ferguson, which has at various times been represented by six law firms, were not available. A 2016 contract with one of those firms, Lewis Rice, calls for its lawyers to represent the city in court for $265 an hour plus various expenses. The rate for civil rights litigation, however, is not listed, and is likely higher.
And that number doesn’t take into account the time and effort of city officials, Strode said.
“When you have folks that have unquestionably been harmed who have received nothing, I don’t know how you continue to justify that,” he said.
Strode, who has been with ArchCity since 2015, is familiar with the complexities and delays of federal court. But the extended litigation is hard on Fant and his other clients.
“In fact one of our plaintiffs, Tonya DeBerry, has died,” he said. “She went to her grave without being able to see a resolution. And that’s really heartbreaking.”
For Fant, the contrast between the decisions of Jennings and Ferguson is bittersweet.
“But I don’t care,” she said. “It can take 10 years. It can take 20 years. That’s fine with me, as long as my children and grandchildren know my story, know the injustice was done about the city of Ferguson.”
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