Three years ago, a Ferguson City Council member raised concerns about Municipal Court Judge Ronald Brockmeyer: He didn’t listen to testimony, review reports, examine the defendants’ criminal history or allow witnesses to testify before rendering a verdict, the council member said, suggesting Brockmeyer not be reappointed.
City Manager John Shaw acknowledged that Brockmeyer’s work had received mixed reviews.
But there was something more important at stake.
“It goes without saying the city cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our courts, nor experience any decrease in our fines and forfeitures,” Shaw said.
The story takes up a single paragraph in a 102-page blistering report that depicts the machinery of small town justice preying on its most vulnerable residents and routinely violating constitutional rights for the purpose of raising money.
While the Justice Department focused on Ferguson, it is clear that the same issues are playing out in other St. Louis County municipalities.
A Post-Dispatch review of state and national data shows that St. Louis County is a national hot spot for ticketing, generating more than $52 million a year for its 90 municipalities, 81 courts, and 63 police departments. That money keeps small cities afloat and supports a cottage industry of lawyers who operate the municipal courts.
St. Louis County has 17 percent of the state population but in 2014 raised 34 percent of the revenue generated by all municipal courts in the state.
Critics say it is a system with little oversight, resulting in cities turning to courts to raise revenue rather than to ensure public safety.
Javad Khazaeli, a St. Louis lawyer who frequently defends clients in the municipal courts, said he was glad to see the Justice Department investigate Ferguson but was concerned people might not grasp how widespread the problems are.
“I don’t want people to think this is only a Ferguson issue,” said Khazaeli, of Khazaeli Wyrsch Stock LLC. “This is happening in dozens of municipal courts all across the region. It’s no secret at all that the many municipalities in St. Louis County see the courts as their own personal ATMs. They incentivize the police to fine people first rather than to do what’s in the best interest of their citizens and their communities.”
NATIONAL HOT SPOT
There is no perfect accounting of which areas in the United States have the most traffic cases. In the most complete data available, the National Center for State Courts tracks caseloads in state and municipal courts that handle traffic cases, noncriminal ordinance violations and parking tickets.
The center’s data put Missouri, with 36 cases per 100 residents, second only to New Jersey. (New Jersey’s numbers are bloated with parking tickets, of which Missouri doesn’t have nearly as many.)
And the state’s traffic caseload is overwhelmingly concentrated in St. Louis County, according to Missouri’s state court system. The county has one-sixth of the state’s population but more than one-third of its traffic cases.
Even when traffic cases alone are considered, 53 municipalities in St. Louis County exceeded that average of 36 cases per 100 residents.
Thirty-seven municipalities doubled that rate; 24 tripled it, and 17 quadrupled it.
On Friday, at a meeting of the Missouri Bar, Gov. Jay Nixon called on municipalities to eliminate their “profit motive.”
He threw his support behind a proposal in the Legislature that would reduce the amount of revenue that cities could raise through court fines and fees.
But he said that was only a first step.
“The problems in our municipal courts extend far beyond simply the amount of revenue our municipal courts take in,” Nixon said.
In the circuit courts in Missouri’s six urban counties, including St. Louis County, judges are selected by the governor from a panel of three qualified applicants selected by a nonpartisan commission.
Voters decide periodically whether to retain judges. Prosecuting attorneys are elected by popular vote.
It’s different in municipal courts.
Municipal judges and prosecutors wield all the power of their counterparts in circuit court: They order arrests, determine guilt or innocence, punish. But they are hired by — and serve at the will of — municipal officials who are counting on them to keep revenue coming in.
Unlike state courts, municipal courts operate on their own, virtually without oversight. Judges and prosecutors have nearly unlimited discretion to dismiss or amend cases.
St. Louis County Presiding Judge Maura McShane, who in theory oversees the municipal courts, told protesters last fall her ability to make single-handed changes to the municipal courts is limited. She can’t hire or fire and has no ability to transfer cases away from problematic courts, she said. She also can’t force the courts to file their annual financial reports with the state, as the law requires.
Michael Downey, a St. Louis attorney who counsels lawyers on ethical issues, said having judges in a revenue-raising role raises ethical concerns.
“It absolutely compromises a judge’s role if they are part of the revenue production system,” he said. “The judge’s determination of an appropriate penalty should not be influenced by some sort profit revenue goal.”
In St. Louis County, where judges and prosecutors often work in multiple municipalities, politics and court discretion create a cozy environment and potential conflicts of interest.
In the Justice Department report, Brockmeyer was criticized for having his own ticket dismissed by Ferguson prosecutor Stephanie Karr, who also works for a nearby municipality where Brockmeyer was ticketed.
Like other players in the municipal court system, Brockmeyer plays multiple roles, working as a judge or prosecutor in five different municipalities and representing defendants.
It’s not uncommon for him to appear as a defense attorney in a court where the judge might be someone who just represented a client before him in Ferguson.
For example, consider Brockmeyer’s dealings with fellow lawyer Donnell Smith. In Dellwood, where Smith is judge, Brockmeyer works as the prosecutor. Brockmeyer has also represented clients in Berkeley, where Smith is prosecutor, and Smith has represented defendants in Ferguson, where Brockmeyer is judge.
Khazaeli, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said he was appalled when he began working in St. Louis to discover how often such role reversals take place.
“I have never seen a system like this before,” he said.
Like other North County municipalities, Ferguson turned increasingly to its courts for revenue as property taxes and other sources of income declined.
The city’s municipal court grew from $1.38 million in fines and fees in 2010 to a projected $3.09 million this year, according to the Justice Department report.
Brockmeyer was a key part of that increase. He created additional fees, such as a $50 fine issued every time an arrest warrant was cleared and a fine that increased each time an individual failed to appear in court, according to the Justice Department report. The civil rights investigators noted many of the fines on the list “are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful.”
They also pointed out that Brockmeyer had admitted to adding charges and additional fines when a defendant challenged a citation.
Brockmeyer’s treatment of defendants in court, the report said, led to a widespread fear that if they appeared and couldn’t pay their fine in full, they’d be jailed. In one case, Brockmeyer held a man in contempt and jailed him for 10 days for refusing to answer questions, according to the report.
Ferguson court and city officials frequently said traffic offenders brought problems on themselves and should take personal responsibility.
On Friday, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said the city would look into the allegations against its judge, but said he didn’t know whether Brockmeyer could be removed during his appointed term.
At the same time Brockmeyer increased court fines and fees and jailed defendants, he didn’t pay his own income taxes, according to property records.
Brockmeyer and his wife, Amy, have six federal tax liens filed against their St. Charles County property totaling roughly $169,000 from 2010 through 2013. Three liens from 2012, of about $63,000, have been paid, according to the St. Charles County Recorder of Deeds office.
Brockmeyer did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment on his tax liens on Friday. He has also declined to comment on the Justice Department report.
In previous interviews, Brockmeyer has defended the system, arguing that his multiple roles gave him a valuable perspective.