For the past six months, the municipal courts of St. Louis County have fended off accusations by activists and law professors that they are modern-day debtor’s prisons that care less about justice than fundraising.
On Wednesday, the Department of Justice went much further, condemning what it called an often merciless and “constitutionally deficient” municipal court in Ferguson that operates “not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.”
The department said it was a case study of how other municipal courts could be operating in the area, and encouraged those courts to change their ways.
Ferguson’s court does not act as a neutral arbiter of law, the report said, but “primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests.”
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Instead of serving as an independent check on police misconduct, it’s run by the police department; the police department acts as the court’s collection department.
The court routinely used harsh tactics — issuing arrest warrants or suspending drivers licenses — to secure collections on petty infractions that would never warrant such severe penalties on their own. Its practices have trapped many people in spirals of debt and incarceration that officials knew about but did nothing to stop.
In August 2013, one city councilman wrote the mayor and city manager, saying that the city had talked about offering community service to those who can’t afford to pay fines, “but we haven’t actually made it happen.” He said it could “keep those people that simply don’t have the money to pay their fines from constantly being arrested and going to jail, only to be released and do it all over again.”
But the city continued raising fines and fees, and issuing warrants, while budgeting for the courts to take in more money.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said at a news conference Wednesday that the city had approved an ordinance capping the revenue it gets from court fines and fees at 15 percent. Additional money would go to pay for projects benefiting the community, he said.
The report said the city set defendants up to fail by requiring them to appear at a specific place and time to pay citations. Ferguson police officers frequently provided wrong information about when to appear in court, and the in-person appearance requirement “imposes particular difficulties on low-wage workers, single parents and those with limited access to reliable transportation.”
City officials blamed a pervasive lack of “personal responsibility” among “certain segments” of the community for high numbers of violations, escalating fines and jail time. But at the same time, city officials frequently fixed traffic tickets for themselves and friends, the department found.
And while issuing arrest warrants for people who failed to appear in court was sometimes framed as a failure to abide by court rules, a municipal judge from a neighboring municipality told Department of Justice investigators that the “failure to appear” charge “provides cushion for judges against the attack that the court is operating as a debtor’s prison.”
Ferguson has eliminated failure to appear as an offense, Knowles said.
City and court officials worked in tandem to raise revenue, occasionally celebrating inventive new ways to collect fines and fees. A report from the city finance director in February 2011 noted that Judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer, the judge since 2003, has “been successful in significantly increasing court collections over the years.”
In the 2011 report, Brockmeyer noted that increases in fines to clear arrest warrants for people who repeatedly failed to appear in court could not “have taken place without the cooperation of the court clerk, the chief of police and the prosecutor’s office.”
The Justice Department report noted said some of the fees instituted by Brockmeyer “are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful.”
The report also pointed to times when Brockmeyer or other court officials arbitrarily acted against lawyers or defendants who challenged them. In a rare trial, when a defense attorney objected to constant interruptions of his cross-examination of a witness, the judge threatened to jail him.
Brockmeyer did not respond to the Justice Department’s report. First he said he hadn’t read the report. After a reporter sent him a copy, he wrote in an email, “As a judge I am unable to speak or discuss cases before me.”
The report focused on a black woman who has a parking ticket from 2007 still pending in court.
She received two citations and a $151 fine, plus fees. After experiencing financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years, she was charged with failure to appear in court seven times. For each missed appearance, the court issued an arrest warrant and tacked on more fines and fees. Over the next seven years, she was arrested twice and spent six days in jail.
When she twice tried to make payments of $25 or $50, the court rejected them, refusing to accept anything but a full payment. For months, municipal courts have claimed they would accept partial payments.
Today, she has paid $550, yet still owes $541.
Brockmeyer told a reporter in an email that he could not discuss the case, “other than to suggest that you have the defendant appear in court to discuss (her) financial ability to pay the fines and costs.”
He said the woman should contact the court clerk before the next court date, 11 a.m. next Wednesday, “and ask that her case be put on the docket.”
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