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St. Louis to forgive about 220,000 warrants for nonviolent municipal offenses

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ST. LOUIS • Offenders of the city’s municipal laws with outstanding warrants soon will get a free pass.

St. Louis officials plan to announce that the city’s municipal court will automatically clear outstanding warrants for nonviolent traffic violations and allow offenders to reset the court dates without a fee so long as they act by year’s end, making it the most progressive warrant forgiveness program in the region.

About 220,000 outstanding warrants issued before Oct. 1 in the city will automatically be forgiven, according to Jeff Rainford, the chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay. He said the announcement was planned for today.

Rainford said the novel approach comes from conversations in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, where many advocates of the poor complain that some residents are burdened by steep court fines and saddled with warrants for minor offenses.

“In light of Ferguson, we were thinking of how we can be more fair,” Rainford said.

Bench warrants are typically issued when someone misses a court appearance, meaning the offender can be arrested and forced to pay several hundred dollars for bail in addition to their underlying ticket.

Now, those with an outstanding warrant issued prior to Oct. 1 stemming from nonviolent municipal offenses in St. Louis, usually for failure to appear in court, will receive a postcard in the mail informing them that the warrant will be cleared until Dec. 31. If offenders don’t come to the municipal court by the end of the year and schedule a new court date, then the warrant will be put back into place.

Mary Ellen Ponder, the city’s operations director, estimated that about 70,000 to 80,000 people will receive postcards. (Many individuals have an average of three to four outstanding warrants per person.)

“This is a way for people get this off their back and for us to get it off the books,” Rainford said. “But it also keeps people accountable for the underlying offenses.”

Offenders must still face the original charges that led to the failure to appear charge.

The approach differs from most other warrant forgiveness programs that require offenders to show up and pay a fee to clear their warrants.

Rainford stressed that the amnesty would apply only to warrants for municipal traffic violations, not state crimes or drunken driving offenses. Warrants stemming from more serious issues like DWI, DUI and leaving the scene charges are exempt, as well as animal abuse and nuisance property warrants. 

“These are not serious matters or serious crimes,” Rainford said.

The city hasn’t yet formally announced the program because officials have been waiting to get the court system’s computers ready to perform the big task of clearing out the warrants.

The program is separate from a city amnesty program conducted last week that allowed offenders to clear warrants for a $35 fee.

Outstanding warrants have long clogged law enforcement systems throughout the nation. Cities have differed on how to handle the backlog, whether through warrant forgiveness programs or cracking down on offenders. For example, in 2013, San Antonio city marshals outfitted more police cars with automatic license plate readers in an effort to roundup tens of thousands of misdemeanor warrants.

Warrant amnesty has been a consistent complaint by many activists and protesters in Ferguson. They have complained that cash-strapped cities are aggressively using municipal tickets and fines as a way of boosting revenue.

St. Louis is somewhat different because municipal fines represent only a small portion of the city’s revenue, compared to bigger sources like sales and earnings taxes.

In Ferguson, officials recently proposed changes to the municipal court structure that limited fees and abolished the separate charge of “failure to appear.”

Clayton will have an “amnesty day” on Oct. 6 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., where defendants can come to court without fear of arrest and make deals with prosecutors and judges to handle outstanding warrants.

Velda City announced last month that offenders can clear up three traffic tickets for a one-time “failure-to-appear” charge of $200, anytime during the month of October.

Thomas Harvey, the executive director of ArchCity defenders, said the St. Louis approach pushes the envelop further than any other amnesty program in the past.

“There is not a better warrant recall program than that,” Harvey said.

Harvey said his once worry is that many of the postcards will be returned because the addresses are not valid or the offender is transient.

The city said offenders will be able to search for their names on the municipal court’s website or call the court to see if their warrants have been cleared before coming in to request a new court date.

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