Municipal Courts Stoked The Rage That Exploded in Ferguson. Have They Changed?

Ryan J. Reilly

FERGUSON, Mo. ― There was a time when pretty much everyone Tony Rice knew had a warrant out for their arrest.

Rice himself has been locked up over traffic tickets so many times he lost track of how often he went to jail during the seven years it took him to pay off the debts. Once, when he showed up for his court date, officers called him into a back room and arrested him on the spot. But there’s one particular trip to Ferguson’s packed jail that sticks out in Rice’s mind. This was before police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, before that turned Rice’s hometown into a hashtag, back when Ferguson was just another town in St. Louis County, churning out warrants to drum up cash.  

“My neighbor was in there,” Rice said. “He saw me, he just started hollering at me, like ‘Hey, hey, what’s going on?’ It was really weird. He was in there for a traffic ticket also.”

Three years after the Ferguson unrest, it’s a bit more difficult to find such dramatic illustrations of the efforts undertaken by Ferguson and its neighboring municipalities to use their cops and courts to fill city coffers, practices that stoked the anger that finally exploded in the streets here in August, 2014.

Back then, it seemed as if everyone had a horror story about dealing with a fractured municipal system in sprawling St. Louis County. The tales often involved a trip to jail over debt. Dozens of small municipalities, many created last century by whites who wanted to keep out blacks, were wreaking havoc on the lives of the same people these places were created to exclude. Parking tickets that elsewhere might lead to a vehicle being impounded instead resulted in a human being seized. Citizens who couldn’t afford excessive fines and fees sat in jail for days, weeks even, in “inhumane” conditions. Citizens called the system “out of control,” “crazy,” “racist,” “sickening.”

For journalists from HuffPost and other outlets visiting municipal courts in the months after the Ferguson unrest, the problems were obvious. The courtrooms, including some that operated out of what used to be family homes, were packed. The lines outside were long. Prosecutors would sit up on the bench alongside the judges. Kids were banned. Sometimes the public was excluded. Judges were explicit in their threats to jail people unless they ponied up. And the numbers were undeniable: plenty of St. Louis County municipalities were getting huge chunks of their budget through their courts.

This week, in conjunction with the Listen to America bus tour, HuffPost headed back to court. Specifically, we visited courts in Maplewood, Brentwood, Ferguson, Cool Valley, Bellefontaine Neighbors and St. Ann (which was hosting a session for the small city of Charlack). We tagged along with an attorney with ArchCity Defenders― a nonprofit civil rights law firm ― as he appeared in three courts in a single night. We saw some signs of change. Kids are allowed in now. So is the public. The jails aren’t as crowded, the lines aren’t as long, and the fines aren’t as steep.

But the problems are still there, as is the fractured municipal court structure that grew out of racism and segregation.

The police department and municipal court building in Ferguson, Missouri. (Damon Dahlen/HuffPost)

In the wake of the Ferguson unrest, the need for municipal court reform seemed like the one thing most reasonable people could agree upon. The situation was so bad that even the region’s top cops, often the public face of law enforcement’s aggressive response to protests, conceded that activists had a point about the policing practices in the area. In late 2014, the then-police chief of the city of St. Louis said some municipalities “victimize those whom they are designed to protect.” In early 2015, the county chief called the practices “immoral.”

So state legislators passed a bill that set caps for the percentage of a municipality’s budget that can come from fines and fees. The head of Missouri’s Supreme Court, “frustrated and angry” after visiting municipal courts herself, issued new rules for the lower courts to make them meet basic constitutional requirements. The revenue raised by municipal courts in St. Louis County dropped dramatically, from $53 million in 2015 to $29 million in 2016.

Rice, who has been a frontline Ferguson protester since the earliest days of the movement, said he’s seen some changes in municipal courts, with officials more willing to let him make smaller payments on outstanding fines. Judges also now have to offer community service for poor defendants who demonstrate they can’t afford the fines they’ve been assessed.

But Thomas Harvey and his colleagues at ArchCity Defenders say the media has a tendency to overstate the extent of the changes. Most weeknights, an ArchCity lawyer can be found crisscrossing St. Louis County to represent clients in the region’s dozens of municipal courts. Often they’re appearing in municipalities that the law firm has sued and accused of running filthy, inhumane debtors’ prisons.

They’ve had some success with that macro approach: ArchCity reached a $4.7 million settlement with the city of Jennings last year that provides small payouts to the residents who had been unconstitutionally locked up because they’d lacked cash. It’s a model the firm is hoping to duplicate in more than a dozen other municipalities its sued.

Harvey said many of the changes since the Ferguson unrest should have happened long ago and don’t represent meaningful progress. Harvey said that because the Justice Department’s report on the abuses in Ferguson’s municipal court focused only on that city, a narrative to emerged that there was “a Ferguson problem, not a St. Louis County, not a broader regional problem.” He called the Missouri Supreme Court reforms a whitewash, and expressed concern that the average citizen has the false impression the county-wide problems are fixed.

“You could create a list of things that have been proposed and policies that have changed, and that list would look very much like what courts and police were already required to do prior to Aug. 9, 2014,” the day Brown was shot, said Harvey. “So you’ve gotten a promise from people who were already supposed to be doing this stuff to do this stuff.”

Blake Strode, another ArchCity lawyer, said the underlying problems with the county’s municipal court system are still there, even if the optics have improved.

“Now, you might not see the same lines. ... But if you look at an individual case, you pull the court file and you’re still seeing folks that are being penalized for their poverty,” Strode said. “At the core, what we saw was a system that was targeting poor black people and what we still have today is a system that’s targeting poor black people.”

Cool Valley, Missouri, a city of just over 1,000 people, has its own municipal court -- one of many in St. Louis County. (HuffPost)

Take Cool Valley, which borders Ferguson. It’s a city, but it would more accurately be described as a neighborhood. Incorporated as a municipality in 1951 with a predominantly white population, it’s less than half a square mile, or just over 300 acres. Today, it has just over 1,000 residents, 84.5 percent of whom are black. Up until a few years ago, Cool Valley had its own 10-person police force and took in more than half its revenue from fines and fees. The year after the police force was abolished, that figure dropped to around 30 percent, still astronomical in comparison with more typical city budgets.

Traffic fines and fees continue to be a major source of the city’s revenues, especially because officers from Normandy ― another city that relies heavily on ticket revenue and now contracts to patrol Cool Valley ― can sit on Cool Valley’s small slice of I-70 and pick off motorists who may not have even known the town existed. Cool Valley officials set the speed limit for their patch of the interstate at 55 mph, low for a major highway. It’s been paying off for them for years.

Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy, who is black, has fought against court reform efforts, and the city joined a lawsuit challenging the fine-and-fee caps the state placed on municipalities. The city was named as a defendant in one of ArchCity’s lawsuits, with the firm’s client alleging he was held for three days in what he described as a “dog cage” with no bathroom, forcing him to urinate on the floor.

Cool Valley will be merging its municipal court operations with Normandy next month, so the session held on Wednesday was the last that will take place in the city. The court was full of drivers ticketed for speeding on the interstate: 70 mph in the 55-mph zone, 72 mph, 69 mph, 71 mph, 73 mph, and so on. The judge, the prosecutor and most of the officers were white, while most of the defendants were black.

For the police, one’s race might dictate one’s role: when a white HuffPost reporter in jeans and a suit jacket walked in, an officer assumed he was a lawyer (that happened at two other county courts as well).

At times, the judge and prosecutor communicated in such low whispers that, even leaning in from the front row, it was impossible to make out what they were saying in what was supposed to be an open court session. 

In addition to the forthcoming merger, there were some minor signs of change. Judge Kevin Kelly, who has been working in municipal courts for decades and serves as a judge and prosecutor in other municipalities in the region, told defendants they “will not be arrested if you at least show up in court.” Pamphlets spell out citizens’ rights in the court. But fundamentally, Cool Valley is still a city using traffic tickets and the court system to keep its government afloat, forcing citizens who can’t afford to pay their fees to return to court month after month after month under threat of an arrest warrant.

Nicole Nelson, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, outside of Cool Valley Municipal Court on Wednesday. (HuffPost)

“Tonight when I walked in, I felt sad,” said Nicole Nelson, an ArchCity lawyer who was there representing a client. “It’s a room full of African-American people. You can see, they’re all coming from work. You would think they had committed some horrible, heinous crimes. But it’s nothing but revenue-generating things.”

In Ferguson on Monday night, Angelia Bradley, having completed 60 hours of community service for a number of moving violations, was relieved her long ordeal with the city’s municipal court was finally over. In 2010, she was living in nearby Berkeley when a tornado hit her home and forced her to evacuate. She moved to St. Louis with her mother as she got on her feet, and tickets she had gotten while driving through Ferguson skipped her mind.

“I honestly had forgot about it after the tornado hit my house,” she said. “The moving violations were like the last thing on my mind.”

She found out about them only when she went to renew her license.

Bradley was glad community service was available as an alternative to fines, but it was a significant burden for her. She’s an aide at a health care home for elders, and she had to alter her schedule so that she could complete her community service and get her daughter to school. She’d like to see municipal courts offer more flexibility and bring down the costs of the fines.

“I just think they should be a little bit more lenient ... give people a little bit more time to pay,” she said. “The payment arrangement they give you, the $50, sometimes you can afford it. Sometimes you can’t. You never know what’s going on in someone else’s situation.” 

Angelia Bradley and her lawyer, Nathaniel Carroll, stand outside Ferguson's Municipal Court building. Bradley performed community service in lieu of fines she faced for various traffic tickets. (HuffPost)

Nathaniel Carroll, an ArchCity lawyer who represented Bradley and visited two other courts that night, said that despite a federal consent decree that forced Ferguson to meet standards in its justice system, the Missouri Supreme Court rules and all the national attention that the city has received, issues remain with the way it does business.

“People without attorneys in here are treated a lot more unfairly still,” Carroll said. “I mean, if you have a lawyer, you have access and you can get a better deal. It’s still the same scheme of issuing fines and fees and even if the original fines might be $200 or $300 per ticket and they give you a good deal, quote unquote, at $150 or $200 a ticket, that’s not really any savings or any favor for people who are too poor.”

He’d like to see more forgiveness, more compassion, more alternative community service. He said the court doesn’t really advertise that community service is available.

“They haven’t stopped ticketing people. These aren’t issues of public safety. These are issues of municipal revenue,” he said.

By drawing national attention to the county’s municipal court practices, the Ferguson unrest also helped the area’s residents realize how broken the system they may have grown used to really was, said activist Kayla Reed.

“What I think it did for people ... is definitely highlight that what we know as normal is actually not OK, right, and that this is a severe injustice that happens in our communities,” Reed said. “So there’s been some slow progress, but what I know for sure is that people are really still wanting to see a conversation around fines and fees and ... a system really needing to change.”

The story of Fred Watson demonstrates how slow progress can be.

More than five years ago, Watson was cooling down in his car after playing basketball with some friends in Ferguson. A city cop ― the same one who had left the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department under a cloud for having “accidentally” pistol-whipped a girl ― approached Watson’s car, held him at gunpoint, arrested him and charged him with multiple offenses, even with making a false declaration for using the short version of his first name. As a result of his arrest, Watson lost his job as a federal cybersecurity officer. He calls the last five years “pure hell.”

Watson’s story appeared in the Justice Department’s report on Ferguson’s unconstitutional policing practices, though without his name attached. Last month, ArchCity filed a lawsuit on his behalf. But it was only this week ― five years after the incident ― that Ferguson finally dropped the nine charges he was facing in municipal court.

“Is this a sign of progress?” ArchCity’s Harvey wrote in an op-ed for HuffPost this week. “Should we all pat ourselves on the backs because these nonsense charges were dismissed after five years of fighting that cost Fred his job?”

Video produced by Will Tooke.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.