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After decades of contemplation and debate, a group known as Better Together is recommending an end to the “Great Divorce” between St. Louis and St. Louis County.Better Together is proposing an ambitious plan to create a unified metro government and police department and limit municipalities' ability to levy sales taxes. The plan would be decided through a statewide vote.Proponents contend it will scrape away layers of local government that has been holding the St. Louis region back. Opponents believe the plan will create an unwieldy and large centralized government that could be implemented against the will of city and county residents.

Two Visions Of Municipal Court Reform

One of the most important changes to emerge from Michael Brown’s shooting is progress toward reform of St. Louis County’s balkanized municipal court system, where traffic tickets can derail poor people’s lives.

Change is certain.  The extent of the reform is not.

Comments last week by two of the most important figures in the reform efforts illustrate starkly different views of how seriously the muny court system is broken and how thoroughly it needs to be reformed.

Thomas Harvey and Frank J. Vatterott both say they want public defenders to help poor people in municipal court and both say they favor a form of amnesty for those with a backlog of traffic cases and bench warrants.

But beneath that surface agreement are big differences. Public defenders and amnesty mean two very different things to these two very different men.

Harvey is a young lawyer five years out of Saint Louis University Law School who leads the ArchCity Defenders organization that has spearheaded the call for broad reforms. The group’s website includes a cartoon of superheroes in capes fighting injustice.

Harvey sees the poor as victims of a municipal court system where the failure to pay fines can land people in jail, costing them their jobs and housing. 

Harvey wants to:

  • establish a full-fledged public defender system paid for by municipal revenues
  • and he advocates a full amnesty for those facing municipal fines and bench warrants.

Vatterott, by contrast, graduated from Saint Louis University Law School more than three decades before Harvey.  He is a veteran municipal judge in Overland who heads the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Commission that is recommending and implementing incremental reforms.
Vatterott favors:

  • volunteer lawyers and law students, rather than paid public defenders. 
  • And the amnesty he favors requires a payment of $100.

To him, most municipal courts function well and one of the biggest problems is that people don’t show up for their court dates.

'Fox guarding the henhouse'? Should judges and prosecutors alone reform the system? Or should poor people have role in reforming system?

Harvey, speaking at a forum on Ferguson at Saint Louis University Law School last week, said that Vatterott’s committee was like the “fox guarding the henhouse.” He said a committee of municipal judges and prosecutors couldn’t be expected to make the far-reaching reforms needed because their own interests were involved. 

Harvey proposed that members of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) should be added to the committee because they know first-hand the problems that poor people face in municipal courts.  

Credit Provided
Frank P. Vatterott

Asked to respond to Harvey’s claims, Vatterott called him a “charlatan” who is too much of a fledgling to know the law. He noted that a lawsuit that Harvey had filed against Bel-Ridge was dismissed last week because it was filed in the wrong court – an appeals court rather than a circuit court.

From Vatterott’s point of view, Harvey doesn’t understand the difficulty caused by people not showing up on their court dates. “I’ve been out of law school for 35 years and I can tell you there are a lot of people who don’t show up,” he said.

“It’s been a problem for many, many years…. The judges like me, we don’t know what color you are when you don’t show up but if you don’t show up we don’t have much choice. We have to issue a warrant because there is no teeth otherwise.

“There is no system that anybody in the United States has that uses anything other than issuing a warrant.  The difficulty is that we have people who are irresponsible and don’t show up and they get behind the eight-ball.”

Vatterott rejected Harvey’s proposal that he include members of the MORE group on the committee, specifically rejecting a member of the advocacy group.

“No I’m not going to add that guy who interrupted the symphony and got arrested at (Steve) Stenger’s victory party..and said I was a racist…..We can’t have a guy like that…..

“We are trying to change procedures and mindsets but the committee is not a place to gather abuses.”

Vatterott says his committee of 18 has a number of African-Americans, including James Clark of Better Family Life.  The committee reports to St. Louis County Circuit Judge Maura McShane, who as the presiding judge of the state courts in St. Louis County has oversight over the 81 municipal courts in the county.

Municipal courts frequently do not allow children. How does that affect parents' ability to make court dates?

The practices in the municipal courts in St. Louis County had attracted attention before Michael Brown was killed on Aug. 9.

Harvey’s ArchCity Defenders group had visited 60 of the county’s 81 municipal courts and found illegal and unconscionable practices.

The first abuse that the group called to McShane’s attention last winter was that some courts sharply limited the general public’s access to their courts, with many barring children entirely.

ArchCity cited the case of 28-year-old Antonio Morgan who ended up being arrested for child endangerment because of his efforts to attend his court date in Ferguson.

Morgan was told he couldn’t take his children into court, so he said he arranged for a friend to watch them as they sat in the car.  An officer saw the children, didn’t believe Morgan’s explanation and arrested him for child endangerment, the report said.

McShane asked Vatterott’s committee to look into the access issue and he found that 37 percent of the courts did not allow children and 10 percent only allowed the defendant.

McShane wrote a sharply worded letter to the courts telling them the policies were illegal. “This practice is not only a clear violation of the Missouri Constitution, but it also subjects those courts to potential claims for violations of constitutional rights,” she wrote.

Even after McShane ordered changes, some cities balked, according to a comprehensive study released by the Better Together group last month.

Berkeley continued to bar children apparently because a clerk did not follow a judge’s order to remove the notice banning children from the website.

Meanwhile, Florissant already had put into place a $10 fee for every municipal ordinance violation, with the money set aside for building and maintaining a new courthouse. The Better Together group said the additional fee was not justified because the city makes a $1.5 million profit on its municipal court each year.

It’s not just the ban on children that leaves citizens feeling alienated from the municipal courts. Steve Ryals, a civil rights lawyer, says he’s seen people arrive a few minutes late for the start of court and not be allowed into the courtroom.

“There also are these draconian rules,” he said. “I was in Normandy. I was out in the hall waiting to see the prosecutor. This guy shows up just after the start of court and the officer says, ‘You’re late; you can’t be there.’ I saw it with my own eyes.  So what happens to that guy? They call his name and they issue a warrant.”

In what areas of the county is the problem of high fines most severe?

All but seven of the 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County make a profit on their municipal courts, the Better Together group found. It also reported:

  • The average municipal court in St. Louis County takes in about half a million more than it costs to run the court;
  • Twenty-one towns earn more than 20 percent of their revenue from municipal courts; 20 of the 21 are north of Olive Boulevard.
  • For 14 towns, municipal court fines make up the biggest source of revenue, 13 of which are north of Olive.
  • Most of the towns that rely heavily on revenue from fines are mostly African-American, meaning the heaviest burden falls on poorer black families.
  • Tiny Pine Lawn, which is mostly African-American and poor, collects three times more in fines and fees than much bigger and wealthier Kirkwood and Clayton - $1.8 million for Pine Lawn to about $500,00-$600,000 for Kirkwood and Clayton.
  • St. Louis County collects a disproportionate share of the municipal court fines as compared with the rest of the state.  About 11 percent of the state’s population lives there, but 34 percent of the fines come from there.

Municipalities that run their own courts are supposed to file reports with the state auditor to check compliance with a law requiring that any fine money over 30 percent of city revenue be turned over to education funding.
But ArchCity found that Bel-Ridge had not filed the report, a failure that could trigger an immediate loss of jurisdiction by the court. ArchCity sued Bel-Ridge, but its action was dismissed by a state appeals court and will be refiled in a lower court.

The Better Together report found that the operation of municipal courts undermined the fundamental relationship between citizens and their town governments.

“Many of the municipal courts in St. Louis County have lost the trust of their communities, particularly those in which residents are predominantly African-American and poor. In these municipalities, because of a lack of oversight and an overreliance on court fines and fees, the courts are viewed as punitive revenue centers rather than centers of justice.”

Should courts be required to consider poverty when assessing fines? Or does that violate equal protection of the law?

ArchCity and law professors at Saint Louis University have called on the Missouri Supreme Court to revise a court rule to “clarify the obligation of municipal courts to proportion fines to the resources of offender require municipal judges.”

Vatterott questions whether such a rule would comply with the Constitution’s require of equal protection. 

“Equal protection works both ways,” he said in an interview. “It is a violation of the equal protection clause to say when you don’t have the money you go to jail. The question is the flip side, whether you can have two people with the same charge – say assault – and the person who has money pays a fine but one who doesn’t pays nothing.” 

Harvey thinks this Vatterott’s analysis is not only wrong but adds, “It is outrageous that he would focus on a hypothetical equal protection claim when there are myriad actual constitutional violations that occur daily in his own back yard.

“If the rule change were adopted, it would mirror current state law, against which no successful equal protection claims have been made. If the rule change were adopted, it would likely only help the indigent and not hurt the wealthy.  The focus should be on the poor here, not Frank's hypothetical rich person.

“This perfectly illustrates why the committee to reform the municipal courts should absolutely include a strong voice from the directly impacted community as well as someone from the defender community.”

Vatterott said in an interview that “we’re not theoretically opposed” to granting a hearing on indigency before sentencing a person in municipal court.  But he added, “it’s not practical.

“How are you going to do that? We have 200 to 300 people on the docket so how are you going to do that. We don’t have the facilities to properly ascertain that…you don’t have money.  At the courthouse they have social workers; we don’t.  We’re all about practicality, we’re not academics.”

Vatterott said his committee is looking for a simply proxy for poverty, such a food stamp card or a disability card.

Should public defenders in municipal courts be paid or volunteers?

Vatterott says he is excited by the committee’s idea of a volunteer corps of law students and lawyers who would advise citizens in municipal court.

There would be no fee and no attorney-client relationship, he said.  Nor would the legal advisers be liable for legal malpractice.

Vatterott senses a real enthusiasm among young lawyers in the wake of Ferguson to get involved.  “For these younger lawyers who don’t have jobs… it might be a way to meet people” and develop clients, he said.

Harvey rejects the idea of volunteer public defenders.  He thinks that municipalities should be required to pay for public defenders available to poor citizens from the moment they enter court – not just if they face possible jail time.

“I don’t think it would be fair to treat this as a part-time effort.  It is complicated when you get into the complications of people’s lives….how this might impact the ability to get a job and to get housing.  We’ve had three or four calls about kids who could not get into the military because of action in municipal court.

“I believe these courts should bear the costs of running the courts and part of those costs are legal defense of indigents before them.”

Harvey also is dissatisfied with the Vatterott committee’s proposed amnesty for municipal court cases. Under the plan, a person would pay $100 for new court date to work out a payment plan for fines and fees.

But Harvey says, “This amnesty is not an amnesty. Paying $100 to get warrants recalled and get back on the court docket isn’t a true amnesty. An amnesty would be dismissing the cases once an for all.”

But Vatterott thinks the committee’s plan will work well.  Forty-five municipalities already have signed up and he expects a total of 60 join.

A closer look at the Vatterrott committee's proposals

In addition to the volunteer public defender and the limited amnesty plan, Vatterott’s group is putting together a “cafeteria order” of reform it plans to recommend to municipal courts. This includes:

  • Limiting the number of “failure to appear” charges to one a case; currently a person who fails to show up on a case involving six traffic charges could end up with six “failure to appear” charges.
  • Allowing a citizen to obtain one continuance by phone without appearing in court.
  • Barring detention or arrest due to inability to pay.
  • Ensuring the defendant has access to the court file.
  • Payment plans to accommodate poor defendants.
  • Preventing court administrators from issuing warrants on behalf of the judge without following court procedures.
  • Payment of fines through a violation bureau that standardizes fines and prevents excessive fines.
  • Early opening of court for citizens seeking to avoid long waits.
  • Substitution of community service for fines. 

Vatterott also says the committee is preparing a card to give to municipal court defendants that makes it clear that appearing in court without enough money to pay a fine will not result in arrest.  Many citizens stay away from court because of this misconception, he says.

Head shot of Saint Louis University Law school Dean Mike Wolff
Credit (Courtesy Michael Wolff)
Michael Wolff, dean of the law school at Saint Louis University

Vatterott says he also favors a proposal by Saint Louis University Law School Dean Michael A. Wolff to change some municipal violations into civil infractions. Examples are littering, driving with expired plates and failure to wear a seat belt.

Vatterott and Wolff are optimistic that the legislature would enact such a change.

Vatterott said he also is trying to line up state Sen. Eric Schmitt from Kirkwood to push legislation needed for the voluntary legal advisers.  Legislation would be required to protect lawyers from malpractice claims.  

But Harvey says Vatterott’s proposal are half measures that do not address the complicated ways in which municipal court cases can wreck the lives of poor people.

“Poor people and communities of color continue to be unconstitutionally excluded from court,” he wrote in an email.  “Poor continue to be unconstitutionally incarcerated because of their poverty.  And poor people are being forced into homelessness as a result of the reliance on municipal courts for revenue.”