LAKE OZARK, Mo. • A municipal court judge who is leading a reform-from-within effort told a gathering of municipal and circuit court judges from across the state Thursday that the system had to do a better job with poor defendants.
But he also characterized Post-Dispatch stories exploring municipal court issues as “media attacks” that continue “even though it’s nine months after Ferguson.”
Frank Vatterott, a veteran Overland judge leading the voluntary reform committee, made his remarks at the Missouri Municipal and Associate Circuit Judges Association gathering at the Lodge of Four Seasons. He said municipal court officials are scrambling to understand changes forced on them as the result of rules and laws written after unrest in Ferguson put a spotlight on the courts’ failures.
He conceded that some complaints about the courts were based in truth.
For example, some defendants representing themselves have not been allowed to speak to prosecutors before facing the judge. The law says they are entitled to that.
He also said he had heard “story after story” of defendants treated rudely by court officials. He said he didn’t know if they were true but encouraged all courts to adopt a “voluntary code of conduct.”
And he said his committee found 16 courts in St. Louis County that were charging fees not authorized by law.
“I think it was inadvertent,” he said about practices that were simply “passed down from generation to generation.”
He cited his committee’s work in convincing 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County to adopt a uniform traffic fine schedule.
Vatterott said the scathing report on Ferguson’s court by the U.S. Department of Justice on March 4 seemed like it was written by someone who didn’t understand how municipal courts work.
The report accused the courts of being more about raising revenue that ensuring public safety. He said the state court system did a better job in its report May 11 that pointed to problems in Ferguson’s court without using inflammatory language.
Introducing his co-panelist Stephanie Karr, the Ferguson city attorney and municipal prosecutor whose conduct was criticized in the DOJ report, he noted she had “been through a lot.”
Karr said even before the DOJ report was issued, Ferguson made changes, including getting rid of a separate charge of “failure to appear” when a defendant doesn’t show up for court, which would multiply the fees and fines due and often result in incarceration.
Ferguson still issues arrest warrants for defendants who fail to appear and ignore a letter giving them a second court date.
But a bill sent to Gov. Jay Nixon this month would remove the courts’ ability to jail someone for failing to pay a fine.
If Nixon signs the bill, people could be fined no more than $300 for minor traffic offenses and cities couldn’t pile on failure to appear charges because of a missed a court date.