In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations, according to documents filed with Missouri’s judicial department.
The week after Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, St. Louis-area public defender group ArchCity Defenders released a report that said more than half St. Louis County’s courts engage in “illegal and harmful practices” of charging high court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses.
“Our white paper was an attempt to take seriously what our clients have been telling us since 2009,” said Thomas Harvey, ArchCity Defenders’ executive director and co-founder. “Since the first day I ever met a client who had a case in municipal court, they told me two things, and that’s this isn’t about public safety, it’s about the money; and I was pulled over because I was a member of a community of color. They told us a lot of outrageous things about being arrested for inability to pay fines and being imprisoned for weeks on end, and not having their children allowed in court, and things that, as a new lawyer, I frankly didn’t believe.”
So the group set up a court watching program. “We saw things that were reflective of what our clients were saying,” Harvey said.
They also crunched the numbers: Ferguson’s budget, for example, expects the municipal court will collect $2.7 million a year, Harvey said.
“I do think that in a lot of municipalities, as the property tax base sort of went away, this became a way to replace that income,” said Brendan Roediger, assistant clinical law professor at the Saint Louis University School of Law.
The Legal Limit
There’s a limit to the amount municipalities can collect from court fines and fees.
“There’s a statutory cap of 30 percent of general revenue that a municipality can actually keep,” Roediger said. “Above that, it’s supposed to go to the state and ultimately to the school fund.
“The issue is that the reporting hasn’t been done in most of these municipalities, so there’s no way for us to actually know what percentage of general revenue. is coming from costs and fines.”
State Auditor Tom Schweich announced two weeks ago that he will audit municipal courts. Schweich said he can’t audit individual municipalities without petitions signed by registered voters.
“There may be some cities that are going to be caught on that,” said Frank Vatterott, an attorney and municipal judge in Overland. “The cities say they’re not above that. … I think there’s going to be some legislation, which might even make that particular statute more — there’ll be a lower cap probably in the next session then there is now.”
The St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee, made up of municipal judges, lawyers and court administrators, is meeting to “fix what we can fix as judges,” said Vatterott, who is part of the group. “About 75 or 80 percent of our courts have no problem at all. But there are a minority of those who don’t charge what they’re supposed to charge and can be improved, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Subcommittees are looking into community service options, and how people can qualify for community service; abatement programs; and a public defender program for the indigent.
“We have a lot of young lawyers who are willing to serve, but have never been organized,” Vatterott said. “There’s a lot of lawyers who want to help.” He expects those on-call lawyers would get a call two or three times a year, and their work would be pro bono.
“That’s one of the solutions that could be implemented immediately,” Roediger said.
The group also wants to eliminate some fees, and standardize the system.
“In every county except St. Louis County, the limit for any violation is $500. In St. Louis County, it’s $1,000; that’s Missouri statute,” Vatterott said. “And the court costs are also set by the Missouri Supreme Court and by statues. But there’s a gray area on things such as probation fees and warrant recall fees and letter fees that cities, I think in good faith, thought they could charge, but they can’t. We’re going to stop that.”
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