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.
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.
"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
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.