Traffic stop too often leads to jail in St. Louis County

Five years before the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., several young attorneys began representing poor drivers who’d received from three to 15 tickets at a single traffic stop (see the New Yorker profile of former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson). A few days after Mike Brown’s death, the ArchCity Defenders white paper, which had been published a month earlier, became a key reference point for the anger in Ferguson. Two of these attorney authors, Thomas Harvey and Brendan Roediger, spoke last week at an Empower Missouri forum, where they presented court reform as important, urgent and often dramatic.

Their goal is closure of the 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County, replaced by four satellite circuit courts that are staffed by full-time professionals and do not incarcerate people for traffic violations. The municipal court judges and prosecutors, who are paid well for appearing in court one evening every three weeks or so, oppose the plan.

Harvey and Roediger have dozens of stories that illustrate the horrors of the municipal courts. Here’s one. There’s no statute of limitations for arrest warrants. So if a driver didn’t have $600 to pay fines in Pagedale last year and, because she didn’t have the money, she didn’t go to court and a warrant was issued, and today she is stopped for not turning off her turn signal in Jennings, the officer in Jennings will see the outstanding warrant and arrest her.

Jennings will hold her in jail until she has paid the Jennings fine and then transfer her to Pagedale, where she will be held until she pays that $600 plus additional warrant costs. She could be in jail a couple of months and, having raised a thousand dollars from relatives and friends, be released still owing another thousand in late fees (or more if the jail charges her room and board).

Here’s another illustration. Harvey and Roediger were presenting the problem of municipal court malfeasance to a group of lawyers. They described the frequent situation where a single mom arrives at night court with her children and is told by the bailiff that the children are not on the docket and cannot enter. Unwilling to leave her children alone outside, the woman departs and misses her court appearance. (At least once, a woman left her children outside, paid her fine, and was then arrested for child neglect.)

An audience member at the presentation happened to be a respected municipal court judge, one that Harvey and Roediger agreed did his job carefully and respectfully. He declared to the audience that that simply did not happen in his courtroom; parents were able to bring in their children. Then, the next time he held court, he asked his bailiff, who said, no, children were never admitted into that court. It was standard procedure. The judge simply didn’t know.

The two attorneys were asked if the St. Louis city circuit court was as plagued by problems as the surrounding county municipal courts. They answered that city judges and prosecutors have a docket to address social service needs and that they do not appear to believe that the people in front of them want to be poor.

Roediger noted that good courts are not profit centers and that the courts were not simply an income stream for the City of St. Louis. (Note: The City of St. Louis is its own county, enclosed by St. Louis County since before the Civil War, a boundary designed to control the black population.)

Another audience questions was: Did these issues gain traction because of Mike Brown? Yes. We owe credit, the speakers said, to the months and months of street protest and unrelenting community activism.

But the municipal courts still continue. And Harvey and Roediger say they get calls from around the country where these same practices prevail. Reform is a long process -- a marathon, as the protesters say.

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