Municipal CourtsA progress report on reforms

Before Aug. 9, 2014, many municipal courts in St. Louis County were not primarily working for justice.

They were working to raise cash for municipalities.

A "white paper" published in the days after the Michael Brown shooting, by the public-interest law group ArchCity Defenders, observed: "The poorest St. Louisans watch an unnecessarily expensive and incredibly inefficient network of municipal courts siphon away vast amounts of their money to support a system seemingly designed to maintain the status quo, no matter how much it hurts the communities the system is supposed to serve."

In Ferguson, there were high fives among city officials when the judge tacked on a new fine.

In St. Ann, the police lined up along Interstate 70 to pull over speeders.

In Beverly Hills, if you were found guilty in court, you were led to a jail cell and held until someone showed up to pay.

Northwoods might put a hold on your drivers license if you failed to pay for a city sticker.

Pine Lawn might put you in jail for weeks for failing to appear on a speeding ticket.

Moreover, in backroom deals, court officials traded favors. And records of all of this were sealed.

The Ferguson protests showed people were fed up with how police and the courts treated them. And the focus soon zeroed in on the courts.

The cards below represent critical issues facing St. Louis County municipal courts in the wake of Ferguson. Click the arrows to scroll through the issues, and use the tabs inside to explore the details of each.

The cards below represent critical issues facing St. Louis County municipal courts in the wake of Ferguson. Swipe the cards to scroll through the issues, and tap the buttons inside to explore the details of each.

Piling on fines and fees

Valarie Whitner displays some of the warning letters that she and her partner, Vincent Blount, received from the city of Pagedale on Thursday, May 21, 2015. They have fallen behind on the to-do lists, resulting in mounting tickets and fines for minor ordinance violations. Photo by David Carson,

The Issue
What's Been Done
What's To Come
The Takeaway

In St. Louis County, fines for some offenses have run as high as $400. And that was just the start.

Miss court and a failure to appear charge was tacked on — sometimes one for each citation, adding hundreds to the original fine. Then there were court costs and fees, ranging from $2 to $25 each.

Country Club Hills charged $65 for those who chose to appeal their ticket. Cool Valley added $50 for those who couldn't pay their fine in full.

Jail time was common for failing to appear on a traffic case, and that brought a whole new set of fees. There was bail to be paid, and in some places, an additional warrant recall fee. If your car was towed, there was a charge to have it released.

People across St. Louis County have been buried under spiraling debt from fines and fees like these. Take Erwin Rush, 50, of St. Louis, who owes more than $4,500 to six municipalities for traffic tickets and missed court appearances.

Or Vincent Blount, 54, and Valarie Whitner, 55, who pay $100 a month to Pagedale on a tab that has grown to $1,810, mostly for code violations such as peeling paint or an overgrown lawn.

Ferguson had some of the highest fines in the region, the U.S. Justice Department reported. Civil rights investigators suggested they were driven by the city's financial interests.

The fines and fees are heavy-handed, ineffective and turn the criminal justice system into a giant cash register, critics say.

  • ArchCity Defenders in an Aug. 14 report blasted the area's municipal court system for pushing people who can't afford fines further into poverty. It pointed to procedural roadblocks and financial hurdles that poor people face in these courts, largely out of view of the public.
  • Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment highlighted the plight of people struggling to keep up with the barrage of fines and fees for minor violations, and set up a bail fund to help people jailed on ordinance violations.
  • "Threatening liberty for failure to pay (fines) is illegal, yet it is an endemic practice in courts across the country."The National Association for Public Defense and Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders
  • Six municipal judges, lawyers and court administrators formed the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee, a voluntary effort to reduce abuses in some courts. They got 79 of 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County to agree on a uniform schedule for fines and fees for most traffic violations.
  • Municipalities across the region offered amnesty days that canceled warrants on old tickets for a fee. A few courts canceled the old tickets altogether.
  • St. Louis University Legal Clinic, ArchCity Defenders and the Campbell law firm sued more than a dozen municipal courts, alleging their fines or fees are illegal under state law. The lawsuits are pending.
  • Facing perhaps the most pressure for reform, Ferguson's municipal court eliminated some excess fees, including a tow fee and warrant recall fee. Ferguson also got rid of the failure to appear charge, for which it had collected more revenue than collected for any other charge.
  • The Missouri Supreme Court in December adopted a rule change for municipal courts that will require judges to assess whether defendants have the ability to pay a fine, and if they can't, put them on a payment plan, or reduce or waive the fine. The rule takes effect July 1.
  • The state Supreme Court has created a group to study municipal court problems. The group's interim report is expected by Sept. 1 and the final report by Dec. 1.
  • The municipal court reform bill that awaits Gov. Jay Nixon's signature would prohibit fines in excess of $300 on minor traffic violations. It also would eliminate failure to appear as a separate charge that brings added costs. Courts would have to take into account a person's ability to pay and offer alternatives such as community service or payment plans.

In St. Louis County, tickets for some offenses led to fines as high as $400. People were buried under spiraling debt.

Jail fees, tow fees, no show fees and more. It adds up quickly in municipal court.

As munis work to control their fines and fees, more than a dozen pending lawsuits could force them to do more.

Discriminatory Practices

Dell Taylor speaks of her frustration with police officers at the first meeting of the Ferguson Commission on Monday, Dec. 1, 2014, at the Ferguson Community Center. Photo by Robert Cohen,

The Issue
What's Been Done
What's To Come
The Takeaway
"Youth in our community are frequently targeted and prosecuted for all manner of normative and normal 'kid stuff.' ... Municipal codes ... across the region criminalize a wide range of ordinary adolescent behaviors from just walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk, to failing to carry and present identification, and to playing a 'boom box' too loud."May Quinn, Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic at Washington University School of Law

The 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits discriminatory treatment on the basis of race. But in Ferguson, the Justice Department noted, "African-Americans are disproportionately represented at nearly every stage of law enforcement, from the initial police contact to final disposition of a case in municipal court."

More than 90 percent of charges such as "manner of walking" and "failure to comply" were issued to blacks, civil rights investigators found. African-Americans were also far more likely to get trapped by the municipal court system, with their cases lasting longer, requiring more court appearances and being less likely to be dismissed.

The Justice Department also revealed racist email exchanges between police and court staff that were “unequivocally derogatory, dehumanizing, and demonstrative of impermissible bias.”

The "failure to obey" or "failure to comply" charges were common among North County municipalities. There are also ordinances that prohibit sagging pants and tinted windows on cars, enforced largely in communities that have majority African-American populations.

The annual report from the Missouri Attorney General's Office found black drivers were 75 percent more likely than white drivers to be stopped in the state. While the data is imperfect, it was an increase from 2013 and well above the 31 percent recorded in 2000, the first year the data was recorded.

  • One community, Hanley Hills, has stopped enforcing the sagging pants ordinance, according to its city attorney.
  • Ferguson's court clerk was fired and two police officers resigned over racist emails.
  • Events in Ferguson brought attention to discriminatory practices within the criminal justice system locally and nationally.

14th Amendment prohibits discriminatory treatment on the basis of race. In Ferguson that didn't matter, DOJ reported.

Manner of walking, failure to comply, sagging pants and tinted windows. Do these ordinances carry a racist subtext?

The Missouri Attorney General’s office said black drivers were 75% more likely than white drivers to be stopped.

Debtors Prison

Royal SeMiell, 9, jokes with her mother, Qiana Williams, after school at their home in St. Louis on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Williams spent weeks in municipal jails because she was unable to come up with money to pay traffic violations. Photo By David Carson,

The Issue
What's Been Done
What's To Come
The Takeaway

It is illegal in the United States to jail people who cannot pay their debts. But some courts here were accused of operating modern day debtors prisons, where people who did not pay their fines were held indefinitely and without any meaningful process that determined their ability to pay.

People have spent days, weeks or even more than a month incarcerated — as long as it took to round up the money that the court demanded for their release. That's before they've even received a judgment on their charge (which often involves paying more money to the court).

Two municipal courts, Velda City and St. Ann, have been sued over their bail systems. There, people arrested immediately on ordinance or traffic violations were made to pay a set fee up front, or else be held several days or until their first court appearance.

Two others, Ferguson and Jennings, were accused in lawsuits of holding people with unpaid fines for as long as it takes to pay off an arbitrary figure set by the judge or jailers — sometimes without any court appearances while they are incarcerated.

"Although the Plaintiffs pleaded that they were unable to pay due to their poverty, each was kept in jail indefinitely and none was afforded a lawyer or the inquiry into their ability to pay that the United States Constitution requires."Jennings lawsuit

The lawsuits tell of people being bounced from jail to jail, forced to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines at each place simply to make it to the next stop on their tour of debt. Many of the incarcerated can't afford and aren't appointed attorneys.

The Ferguson and Jennings suits also described deplorable conditions at the jails. City officials have disputed the allegations.

Federal law banned debtors prisons nearly two centuries ago. In a series of decisions beginning in the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that it is unconstitutional to jail people without considering the individual factors of their case or distinguishing between who is too poor to pay, and who can pay but simply refuses.

  • The Velda City suit was settled. The city agreed to release people on a promise to appear in court or on an unsecured bond. People determined to be a threat must be brought before a judge within 24 hours.
  • Some claims were dismissed in the Ferguson suit, but the majority remain. It could be September 2016 before the lawsuit reaches trial.
  • The Ferguson court in December 2014 established a new bond schedule for warrantless arrests, ensuring that individuals arrested on all but 14 code violations will be released within 12 hours on their promise to appear in court, regardless of whether they paid the bail. Defendants unable to pay bail will address the issue with the judge in court.
  • Civil rights lawyers on the Velda City lawsuit hope the settlement prompts changes to the bail system here and across the country. They continue to work on the other pending suits and are seeking class action status.
  • The municipal court bill awaiting the governor's signature would eliminate the failure to appear charge. It also would ensure nobody is held longer than 24 hours in municipal custody without a warrant, and 48 hours without a hearing before a judge. The legislation prohibits courts from detaining people to coerce payment. And it forbids a sentence of incarceration for minor traffic offenses. The state could seek to recoup unpaid fines through a person's income tax refund.
  • The St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee has proposed uniform bail fees, bringing public defenders into the municipal courts and a system that would allow people to handle all their outstanding traffic warrants at once, without having to be shipped from one municipality to another.

It is illegal in the U.S. to jail people who cannot pay off their debts. Some courts in St. Louis area did it anyway.

#STL area lockups are filled with people who have spent days, weeks or more than a month jailed on traffic tickets.

Civil rights lawyers hope a settlement with Velda City prompts changes to the bail system there and across the nation

Revenue Machines

"It's ridiculous how the fines kept adding up. It's not right," said Myron Harris, as he left the municipal court on March 19, 2015, at City Hall in Ferguson. This was the first session of Ferguson's municipal court since the Supreme Court stepped in and the city's judge resigned. Harris was in court to pay a fine from a $45 child restraint ticket from 2007. More than $800 in additional fines had piled up over the years he said. Harris paid $200 toward the fine and was put on a payment plan. He declined community service options due to conflict with his job. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

The Issue
What's Been Done
What's To Come
The Takeaway

Getting a ticket and getting it fixed have become part of living in the St. Louis area.

A Post-Dispatch review of data shows that St. Louis County is a national hot spot for ticketing, generating more than $52 million a year for the county and its 90 municipalities, 81 courts, and 58 police departments. That money keeps small cities afloat and supports a cottage industry of lawyers who operate the municipal courts.

"Especially in small, impoverished municipalities where traditional sources of revenue such as taxes have stagnated or declined, police departments are being pushed into the role of revenue generators ... away from their traditional roles of community guardians and protectors."Better Together and Police Executive Research Forum report

Ten of the 25 municipal courts with the most fines and fees collected per capita in Missouri in 2013 were in St. Louis County. And 19 of the 25 courts that issued the most warrants per capita were in north St. Louis County. They also had some of the greatest increases in collections over five years.

The Justice Department put a spotlight on Ferguson in particular, calling the city's police department a collection agency for its municipal court. It noted the harm was inflicted overwhelmingly on African-Americans.

A state law named after Macks Creek, a former town with a notorious speed trap, is supposed to keep revenue from traffic fines in check. But municipalities have never been held to its 30 percent limits for traffic revenue.

And cities and towns can still raise money from other kinds of tickets unrestricted. The Post-Dispatch found six communities where more than half of their tickets are over non-traffic matters, which don't count toward the revenue cap.

  • Ferguson in September set a 15 percent budget limit on its court revenue. Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, sharply criticized in the Justice Department report for operating his court with a focus on revenue over justice, resigned as Ferguson judge and four other area municipal court positions.
  • In October, the state auditor's office said it would audit at least 10 municipal courts, including Ferguson, Bella Villa, Pine Lawn and St. Ann, over the next year to make sure they are "about justice and not revenue."
  • In October, lawyers for St. Louis University Legal Clinic and ArchCity Defenders sued the village of Bel-Ridge for failing to abide by the Macks Creek Law. One of two lawsuits has since been dismissed, to await a Missouri Supreme Court ruling on a challenge to the Macks Creek Law from the Missouri Municipal League.
  • In December, the Attorney General's Office sued 13 St. Louis County municipalities for failing to submit financial reports to the state auditor's office or report whether they had excess traffic revenue, as the Macks Creek law requires. All but one municipality — Hillsdale — have since been dropped from the suit, because they have come into compliance.
  • Better Together reported that the average municipal court in St. Louis County brings in more than $700,000 a year but costs less than a third of that to operate. The group and the Police Executive Research Forum reported in April that problems in many of these small police departments are "driven by the need to generate more and more revenue to fund the patchwork of dozens of local governments that exist in the county."
  • In May, the Legislature sent Nixon a bill that takes aim at what critics call predatory municipal practices. Under it, people could be fined no more than $300 for minor traffic offenses. Cities couldn't pile on "failure to appear" charges because an offender missed a court date. Fines and fees from minor violations could furnish no more than 12.5 percent of the general operating revenue for municipalities in St. Louis County and 20 percent in the rest of the state. There would be stricter procedures for enforcing the cap. It awaits the governor's signature.
  • The state audits are expected to be concluded this fall.
  • Nixon is expected to sign the municipal court bill.
  • Some municipalities may struggle under the new restrictions on municipal court revenue. Northwoods is already weighing whether to disband its police department.
  • Some municipalities may shift their ticketing to focus on non-traffic cases.
  • The Missouri Supreme Court still needs to rule on whether elements of the Macks Creek Law are unconstitutional. Also, the Missouri Municipal League has said it will challenge the new law because the revenue limits are not uniform across the state.

10 of 25 municipal courts with the most fines and fees per capita in 2013 in Missouri were in #STL County

If Gov. Nixon signs law restricting traffic court revenue, watch for munis to shift to charges like saggy pants.

Audits this fall could reveal more details about municipal court practices to bring in revenue.

Conflicts Abound

Many lawyers have different roles in different municipal courts. In this graphic, a gray line connects lawyers serving as prosecutor or judge in the same court or where one lawyer was a defense attorney in a court where the other was a judge or prosecutor. A red line connecting lawyers means they each took a turn as defense attorney in the court where the other lawyer served as prosecutor or judge or they serve together as prosecutor and a judge in one court and in another court one was defense attorney and the other was judge or prosecutor.

The Issue
What's Been Done
What's To Come
The Takeaway

Speeding ticket? Don't fret. The municipality employing the officer who pulled you over doesn't want to put points on your license. It wants your money.

A Post-Dispatch investigation exposed an elite club of lawyers who help run as well as profit from the region's 81 municipal courts.

In courts where they have no official status, they often work as traffic attorneys whose success lies in their ability to get a charge amended to a nonmoving violation — a leniency that many courts will afford only to lawyers, as long as the offender is willing to pay a higher fine. They also work as city attorneys, paid to represent municipalities in lawsuits and to craft ordinances that feed the revenue stream. Sometimes they do both.

These dual, or in some cases triple and quadruple roles — judge in one place; prosecutor or city attorney in another; and private lawyer representing defendants in still another — mean the lawyers regularly appear before each other, switching places in court.

This trading of roles would never fly in circuit court. But it pervades municipal court, where conflict of interest rules aren't as strict.

  • As part of the sweeping municipal court reform bill passed by the Missouri Legislature, the Supreme Court would be required to develop rules on conflicts of interest.
  • A working committee appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court could decide to take up this issue.

Speeding ticket? Got connections? No problem. An elite club of lawyers can help. Can’t afford a lawyer? Get in line.

Lawyer A is judge. Lawyer B: prosecutor. Lawyer C: defense attorney. The next day, in another town, the roles switch.

If muni court reform bill becomes law, Mo. Supreme Court must develop new conflict rules for lawyers in the system.

Secret System, Little Oversight

Members of the media tape the live broadcast of the opening remarks of Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Roy Richter as he presides over the session of the Ferguson Municipal Courts on Thursday, March 19, 2015, at City Hall in Ferguson. This was the first session of Ferguson's municipal court since the Supreme Court stepped in and the city's judge resigned. The broadcast feed was viewed from a room inside the Ferguson Police Department. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

The Issue
What's Been Done
What's To Come
The Takeaway

St. Louis area municipal courts for years have done what they wanted with little oversight.

Basic information such as the identities of defendants and the accusations they faced were shielded from public view. Until an intervention of the circuit court last year, many courts only allowed defendants or their lawyers in the courtroom.

Even when courtrooms are open, hearings are accessible only to lip-readers. Judges and lawyers speak in hushed tones, with no way for the public to learn what is happening with each case.

"There are more governments in the St. Louis region than countries in the U.N."T.R. Carr Jr., co-chair of the Ferguson Commission's working group on municipal courts and governance

Viewing a single case file can often take days of waiting and require permission from a city attorney.

The public has no way to find out about the sweetest deals, such as when a case is dismissed by a prosecutor for someone he knows.

Even though the municipal courts in St. Louis County are divisions of the circuit court, the presiding judge has historically been hands-off.

It's not easy to keep track of these courts, because there are 81 of them. Critics say the fragmented police and court systems in St. Louis County invite trouble because there are lax standards and more opportunities for abuse.

  • When several area courts denied access to their dockets, the Post-Dispatch filed a complaint with the state judicial records committee. It issued an order regarding access to court records. Scotland County Associate Circuit Judge Karl DeMarce said he was "startled by the blanket denial" and "concerned about the municipal courts limiting access to records that are manifestly public."
  • Several courts say they now allow families and other observers into court.
  • The Missouri Supreme Court in March reassigned all Ferguson municipal court cases to the circuit court to "help restore public trust" in Ferguson's court.
  • A May report by Judge Roy L. Richter of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, who has been handling the Ferguson court's caseload, and the Office of State Courts Administrator said many problem had been solved, but that the court does not have checks and balances to prevent conflicts of interest nor does it properly safeguard its data.
  • Better Together, an organization studying consolidation of St. Louis County's 90 municipalities, in October recommended more oversight from circuit court judges over municipal courts, the appointment of municipal judges by a panel in the judicial circuit rather than by the municipality that pays them and a public defender system.
  • There are no efforts to bring transparency to dismissed cases. Court officials can still dismiss and seal cases for whatever reason they want.
  • The Supreme Court has created a working group to study municipal court problems. It is expected to file an interim report by Sept. 1 and final report no later than Dec. 1.
  • Twenty-four North County communities in the Normandy School District are in talks to merge their municipal courts out of the fear that if they don't initiate reforms, reforms will be forced on them.
  • The Ferguson Commission, a 16-member panel created by the governor to address the economic and social conditions highlighted by the protests, has made court reform a priority. The commission expects to produce a report on its work and recommendations for reforms in September.

Most STL-area muni courts are open only to lip readers. Try hearing what the judge and lawyers are saying at bench.

The sweetest muni court deals are sealed from public view, as when a prosecutor dismisses a case for a golfing buddy.

A judicial records commission recommended public release of muni court records that are “manifestly public.”

Other Obstacles

People wait in line for the doors to open for the municipal courts on Thursday, March 5, 2015, at the Dellwood City Hall. Photo by Laurie Skrivan,

The Issue
What's Been Done
What's To Come
The Takeaway

Why don't people just pay their tickets?

The simple answer: It's not always that easy, particularly if you are poor.

Some courts have made people pay their fines in full or face jail time and/or the automatic suspension of their license.

The Ferguson court did not communicate its rules and procedures to defendants, DOJ investigators found. Frequently, the wrong court date was written on tickets — a single mistake that could lead to someone's arrest or license suspension. There was also no warning about the consequences of missed appearances.

"It is a hallmark of due process that individuals are entitled to adequate notice of the allegations made against them and to a meaningful opportunity to be heard."DOJ report on Ferguson

Citations for non-traffic matters could only be paid in person. Court was often held in long sessions during daytime hours — a hardship, the report noted, for single parents, low-wage workers and anyone who does not have reliable transportation. Often the payment window was closed when it was supposed to be open. It took some defendants up to 10 court appearances to reach resolution on their fines.

The Post-Dispatch has heard similar complaints about other municipal courts.

Over the winter, the most visible symbol of the hardship was the long line of people stretching outside in the cold on payment nights. Attorneys could come and go as they pleased without a wait. Lawyers were also the only ones who could get continuances in some courts.

Until ordered to change, many courts wouldn't allow children inside.

Failure to appear charges mounted for people who didn't show up to court because they were incarcerated elsewhere. Some people have been released from jail or prison only to find they have to serve more time or pay hundreds of dollars because of the failure to appear charges filed while they were jailed.

Perhaps the worst example of courts making life unnecessarily difficult for people: Defendants could not renew their drivers licenses because they missed a court appearance on a non-traffic violation, a penalty not allowed by law. Municipalities also threatened license suspensions when they knew they couldn't be enforced.

  • Many courts have adopted a new, voluntary rule that opens the court to everyone, children included.
  • Some courts have relocated or added sessions to reduce lines on court nights.
  • Failure to appear charges would be eliminated under the municipal courts reform bill awaiting the governor's signature.
  • One city attorney acknowledged that his municipal court and others had placed holds on drivers licenses in cases where they had no authority to do so and pledged an audit. The Department of Revenue lifted a hold that had been improperly placed on one woman's license, in response to the Post-Dispatch investigation.
  • After the DOJ report, Ferguson fired its court clerk and its judge resigned, and new practices were put in place to make it easier for people to pay their fines. Now, most fines can be paid by mail except those excluded under the law. The city was also the first to eliminate the failure to appear charge. The court is making a better effort to work with defendants on court dates and payments.
  • The Supreme Court has created a working group to study municipal court problems. It may take up some of these issues.
  • The newspaper continues to hear from people who have had holds improperly placed on their license. This may continue unless the Department of Revenue or Missouri Supreme Court decides to address the issue.

Why don't people just pay their tickets? It's not always that easy, particularly if you are poor.

People in St. Louis County tell of repeated obstacles when they try to pay their tickets.

Failure to appear charges would be eliminated under municipal courts bill awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature.