Policymakers Eye Big Changes To Missouri's Municipal Courts

Sep 23, 2014
Originally published on September 23, 2014 10:44 pm

Ferguson resident Meldon Moffitt is part of a hardy group of protesters known as the Lost Voices, mostly young people willing to sleep on the street to get justice for Michael Brown’s family.

Moffitt said he believes more than just Ferguson needs to change. He said, for example, he received a stiff fine in Jennings for driving on a suspended license, even though he said he had paperwork clearing up the matter.

It’s part of what of what Moffitt says is as an unfair system affecting African Americans like himself.

“If you pull me over for a traffic ticket and you catch me doing the wrong and I get a ticket, I can deal with that,” Moffitt said. “But if you pull me over and assume I did something wrong and you give me a traffic ticket and I can’t prove my innocence, what am I to do? I can’t beat them. It’s my word against theirs. And they’re going to take their word over mine because they’re carrying a badge.”

Moffitt’s words, though, are being heard loud and clear by local, county and state policymakers. They’re considering substantial changes to municipal courts, both in the St. Louis region and around the state.

It’s the type of ground swell that’s gratifying to a group of attorneys who’ve spent months – if not years – to trying to make changes.

“Courts have got to start treating these people as people with real-life problems,” said Thomas Harvey, an attorney with Arch City Defenders. “That’s one of the primary concerns our clients have: Nobody’s listening to them when they say ‘I’m not scofflaw. I’m not a criminal. I’m a poor person who’s having a hard time making these fines.’ And when our clients hear from judges ‘I don’t care; give us the money,’ that sends the wrong message and it destroys the political capital that they otherwise could build for their communities.”

Compendium of action

The Ferguson City Council is slated to make big changes – possibly on Tuesday -- to its municipal court system. The changes include eliminating penalties for failing to appear in court and abolishing certain fines. The council is also planning to limit the amount of fines and court fees that can be used toward general revenue to 15 percent. Additional funds would go toward “special projects.” 

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said, “Once we started to dig deep into the policies and procedures and things that have been going on, we recognized that there are issues of fairness here.

“It didn’t take much deliberation to see that there’s some validity to what’s being said about things like tow release fees and other small fees that are added on,” Knowles said. “Once I realized that we were really the outlier on that, I think it was easy for us to make those changes.”

In the past couple of weeks, several groups have announced their intentions to work toward modifying how these courts operate. They include:

Before a Ferguson police officer killed Brown on Aug. 9, these changes were hardly a major priority, but national and local pressure might have forced the hands of politicians from across the political spectrum.

National publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post published extensive stories on municipal courts in Ferguson and other St. Louis County cities. They detailed how some towns in St. Louis County place primarily poor blacks in financial and legal straits, even jailing them for weeks at a time.  

These articles caught the attention of state Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Boone County. He said his fellow lawmakers likely will enact statewide changes to municipal courts. That could conceivably include further lowering the amount of money from traffic fines a city can keep or easing penalties for poor people. 

“Whenever any court only has court every two weeks, somebody gets picked up on a bench warrant for failure to pay a speeding ticket or failure to pay a parking ticket. You get picked up on a bench warrant; you’re in jail for two weeks waiting to get in front of a judge to get back out. I think that’s a problem,” Jones said.  “I have a wife and a 1-year-old child. If somebody takes me away for two weeks, that’s an issue.”

Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, represents around 25 municipalities in St. Louis County. He said that he’s received tickets himself from small cities – and could have successfully fought them off. But he paid the fines out of “convenience,” quipping that “the system beat me down and I forked out the cash.”

Smith – who works at Boeing – said he had the financial means to pay the fines. But many of his constituents aren’t so lucky. It’s why he strongly backs efforts to pare back municipal courts – including  more stringent enforcement mechanisms to ensure cities don't keep more fines than they should.

“One of the quickest ways for a black man to end up in the system is by way of a traffic ticket. And not answering that traffic ticket, which then becomes a warrant and jail time,” Smith said. “So now you’ve got this record for low-level speeding, and it blocks employment opportunity – and then maybe education opportunity.

State Rep. Clem Smith, D-Velda Village Hills, talks with Rosenbaum about his experience dealing with municipal ticketing and why the state legislature needs to intervene.

"The Mike Brown situation was a microphone,” he added. “And then the system was saying ‘Hey, we have to do something here. Tempers are high, so what can do to correct this system?’ So sometimes it takes a tragedy, unfortunately, to bring change or discussion on something, in my opinion, that’s wrong that’s been going on.”

Critical mass

St. Louis University law professor John Ammann has joined with Harvey and his colleagues to push for Ferguson to eliminate fines for minor ordinance violations -- and to amend Missouri Supreme Court rules regarding municipal courts. He said altering municipal courts gained fairly widespread favor for several reasons. 

National press coverage made St. Louis “a national embarrassment on these issues,” he said. But, he added, changing how municipal courts administer justice is an essential to forge trust between civic institutions and black residents.

For instance, Ammann said Centene’s bid to open an office in Ferguson makes a lot of sense. But he adds the company’s ability to hire black residents is going to be hampered if they have warrants from some of the county’s small towns and cities.

“If young black men in Ferguson have warrants, Centene’s not going to hire them,” Ammann said. “So all the positive things we’re talking about – let’s hire more black police officers, let’s hire more blacks for the companies in Ferguson, let’s put new businesses there – it means nothing if we don’t fix the municipal court system that keeps people in the shadows and prevents people from applying for jobs or getting housing or running for office because they have outstanding warrants.”

While Harvey said he’s surprised the issue caught on with some conservative Republicans, he added it corresponds well with their philosophical approaches.

“If you take them at their face value, they’re people concerned about abuses of government,” Harvey said. “And the face of the government for a lot of people is the municipal court and the police.”

But while local changes appear to have a good chance of success, statewide efforts may run into opposition.

Richard Sheets of the Missouri Municipal League said his group doesn’t support lowering the amount of fines a city can keep. He said that might hurt municipalities around the state that aren’t doing anything wrong.

“Sometimes fixing a perceived regional issue or a local issue statewide has some dire consequences on some other cities,” said Sheets, emphasizing that his group wants to work with lawmakers to come up with an agreeable solution. “So that’s going to be our message and has been our message.”

Sheets also said restrictions may hinder some municipalities responsible for patrolling state roads and highways. He said the “real problem” is that the “state is relying heavily on municipalities to police state highways” – as opposed to using the Missouri Highway Patrol.

“When there’s a traffic ticket issued and the violator fails to appear, I don’t know what you would do in a situation like that. I mean, people have responsibilities,” Sheet said. “Let’s say that the Highway Patrol stopped someone on that same stretch of state highway and the state patrolman gave that person a ticket. If they didn’t appear in the circuit court, same thing’s going to happen. So it’s not just a municipal issue.”

Smith said he expects groups like the Missouri Municipal League to push back against municipal court changes. But he said changes to courts must happen on a statewide level because “it’s growing out of control.”

“You’ve got some fines that are so huge related to the so-called ordinance violation it doesn’t match up,” Smith said. “And people just caught in this cycle where you’re always on paper having warrants or being in the legal system. And you’re always on paper."

Listen up

Back at the Lost Voices compound, Moffitt is deeply skeptical of Ferguson’s proposed changes. Unless St. Louis County’s other cities change course, he said, people traveling through north St. Louis County may not notice much of a change.

“If Ferguson is going to make a change, then Jennings and all the other municipalities around here got to make changes,” Moffitt said. “You just can’t start in one jurisdiction and think it's going to be all right. You’ve got to start all over."

Travis Sowell agrees with Moffitt. He said that Ferguson’s proposals are aimed at making the city look better. But he does have some hope.

He noted some political leaders – including state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City – visited the Lost Voices campsite. That may show that politicians are listening.

“This is a community that you’re supposed to be serving,” said Sowell, a 19-year-old who plans to go into the military. “If you don’t know your people, then who in the hell are you serving but yourself? Or getting your bank account set up for the rest of your life.”

Ferguson’s changes aren’t exactly what Harvey and Ammann wanted. But they say they’re a start – and are heartened that they may witness more expansive changes.

“Obviously the thing that started it was the tragic death of Michael Brown. But you’re right. Things have really snowballed since then,” Ammann said. “The truth resonates. The curtain has been pulled back from the hidden system of how muni courts operate and how much revenue they take in and the overpolicing and the number of warrants.”

St. Louis Public Radio's Camille Phillips contributed information to this story.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

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