Rob Howard’s municipal court experience is typical, which is to say that nearly any black person who spends any time driving in north St. Louis County can relate to it.
Last fall he was driving to a friend’s house late one night on Interstate 270 in Creve Coeur when he got pulled over by a police officer.
“I was the only one on the road,” he said. “It seemed weird.”
The police officer said he was swerving. He asked for his license and ran Howard’s name. He had a warrant out for his arrest. Howard spent the night in jail. He didn’t get a ticket from Creve Coeur, but he didn’t have enough money to bail out of jail, either. He was driving his mother’s car, who needed it for work the next day. Howard also works, two jobs, one as a graphic artist, the other at a cellphone store.
Howard’s mom called a friend, Patricia Bynes, the Democratic committee woman from Ferguson who was introduced to the nation during nonstop cable television coverage of the events there in the summer and fall of 2014.
Bynes, a family friend, went to the station and put up the money to get Howard out of jail.
“This is just one of those ways in which poor people who live around here are inconvenienced all the time,” she said.
Bynes’ sentiments echoed the theme of a video shown Wednesday night at the Central Library downtown during a town hall meeting organized by Forward Through Ferguson (the former Ferguson Commission) about the region’s municipal court problems.
“Behind every ticket is a name and a story,” it was headlined.
The overwhelming view at the town hall meeting was that the people of the St. Louis region want the Missouri Supreme Court to fix the problems caused by having 80 municipal courts and nearly 60 police departments in one metro area. Too many of those courts are using their police departments as ticket-writing machines to raise money to fill city budgets. Their targets are often poor, and black, like Howard, or like Dawn Jones, the St. Louis woman in the video at the town hall meeting.
“Sometimes you take the long route because you want to avoid the municipalities,” Jones said. “Simply going to school can be scary.”
The Supreme Court is now mulling a report by the working group it appointed to study the municipal courts and come up with solutions. That working group’s report was disappointing to most of the advocates for civil rights in the region who have been pushing for consolidation and professionalization of the courts.
In fact, it was so disappointing — particularly because it argued that the Supreme Court couldn’t force consolidation of the courts that the state Constitution says it supervises — that the Ferguson Commission co-chairmen ripped it in a statement last week.
“If the Supreme Court does not act, we call for the Department of Justice, in line with its letter regarding unconstitutional court practices sent to chief justices and court administrators across the country on March 14, 2016, to again intervene on behalf of the people of St. Louis County,” wrote the Rev. Starsky Wilson and Rich McClure.
What the court needs to see, they say, and Washington University law school professor Kimberly Norwood echoes, is that the problem in St. Louis is about more than raising court standards. It’s about understanding how the status quo affects people of color. The working group — Norwood was on it — tried to ignore race, but Norwood, in her stinging dissent, reminded the court that it can’t be ignored.
“How people are policed is very different depending on where they live,” Norwood told the town hall meeting on Wednesday.
Indeed, that’s the conclusion of another municipal court study released by a group of St. Louis University professors this week. An interdisciplinary team involving professors of sociology, political science and law, interviewed more than 700 users of municipal courts in the poorest courts in north St. Louis County and the wealthiest ones in West County.
What they found is that blacks have a poor perception of the courts, and that a majority of people in St. Louis County, regardless of race, believe the current municipal court system is set up more as a fundraising avenue than to seek justice. The courts in the poorest areas of the county performed worse than those in wealthy communities.
Howard knows that reality all too well. Though Howard, 28, escaped his Creve Coeur experience with only one night in jail, he still faces fines in the well-known ticket factories of Charlack, Bel-Ridge and St. Ann.
He isn’t angry over his experience, but resigned.
“The same thing happened to my older brother,” he said. “It’s happened to a lot of people I know.”
Racial profiling leads to tickets, leads to fines, leads to jail, leads to lost jobs, leads to more poverty.
This is daily reality in St. Louis for too many of its citizens.
The Missouri Supreme Court can make life better for them. Or not.