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Attorneys Ask Ferguson's Mayor To Commute Non-Violent Ordinance Offenses

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

A group of attorneys is asking Ferguson’s mayor to “wipe the slate clean” and grant clemency to certain people who broke the city ordinances, such as speeding or getting a parking ticket.  

Three law professors at Saint Louis University School of Law and the head of Arch City Defenders are asking Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III to provide the amnesty. Specially, the attorneys are asking Knowles to:

  • Remit all outstanding fines from non-violent offenses in their entirety and cancel any warrants associated with those offenses.
  • Pardon all pending “unassessed” cases alleging non-violent offenses and recall any warrants associated with those cases. “Assessed” is the term used to describe somebody who is convicted of violating a municipal ordinance.

“As a community of advocates, we are aware that the vast majority of negative interactions with police in your community stem not from the investigation of violent crime but from traffic stops and warrant checks,” the letter states. “The City of Ferguson has more warrants than residents … For many young people, these warrants act as a barrier to employment and housing.”

Since Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, numerous media outlets have noted how much of Ferguson’s revenue is derived from municipal fines. Governing Magazine reported that Ferguson collected more than $2.5 million in fines and forfeitures during the last fiscal year, which accounted for about 20 percent of the city’s total revenue.

John Ammann, the director of Saint Louis University’s LAW Legal Clinic, was one of the SLU law professors who signed the letter. He said a mass pardoning would not only be symbolic of reconciliation, but it would also be a tangible way to bridge the gap between the town’s largely white leadership and the African-American community.

“The minority community, low-income people who have outstanding warrants are not going to come to city hall for a meeting if they have outstanding warrants,” Ammann said. “A young African-American man is not going to come to the Police Department to ask about a career as a law enforcement officer if he has outstanding warrants.

“The city’s got to take a basic step and take this act of forgiveness, which the mayor can do under the statute and move things forward,” he added. “Not only symbolically, but a very real way that will bring people out of the shadows and to fully participate not only in government but in the economy.”

Limited power?

Ammann and the three others who signed the letter contend that state law gives Feguson’s mayor the power to “remit fines and forfeitures and to grant reprieves and pardons” for ordinance violations.   

But that statute is in a section of state law focusing on “third class cities,” a classification that doesn’t apply to Ferguson. There’s also nothing in the city’s charter or in its ordinances that directly gives the mayor power to commute municipal sentences.

Ammann is questioned about whether Knowles has the power to commute municipal sentences.

At the time of this posting, a spokesman for the city of Ferguson had not replied to requests for verification of whether the mayor could commute municipal sentences. Ammann said he believes the state law applies to Ferguson, even if there’s nothing explicit in the city’s charter or ordinances.

“So the state law gives the mayors of cities of various classes this authority,” Ammann said. “The fact that it’s not in the city ordinances doesn’t matter. And the fact that it’s a weak mayor form of government doesn’t matter either. Could the city council in Ferguson take that right away from the mayor? Maybe. But our position is somebody in Ferguson has this power.”

If the mayor didn’t have commutation power, Ammann said the city’s prosecutor and municipal judges could accomplish the goals in the letter.

“The minority community is the primary victim of these policies of pulling people over for minor infractions, piling on tickets, and piling on warrant fees when they miss a court date,” Ammann said. “We think it’s an opportunity, symbolically, for the mayor and city council to make an act of reconciliation, an outward effort to the minority community to say we want to reset the clock. We want to start over.”

Meanwhile, Knowles and Ferguson’s city council announced that they were postponing a council meeting scheduled for tonight. In a message on the city’s website, it announced that “the City is searching for a larger venue to accommodate the anticipated attendance.”

“The Mayor and City Council will be requesting resident input in the coming days via postage paid comment cards,” the unsigned statement said. “Those comment cards will be delivered this week to every home in the City, they will be available at businesses around the City, and an online forum will be created for those who wish to submit their comments online.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.