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On first night in Ferguson, Judge Richter sets new fines, fees

Appeals Court judge Roy Richter was on the bench in Ferguson for the first time on March 19. Video screens were set up in another building to accommodate those who wanted to watch the court but did not have cases.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

The appeals court judge now hearing municipal cases in Ferguson has limited the amount of fines and fees the city can collect from defendants facing traffic, animal control or housing ordinance violations.

The Missouri Supreme Court last week assigned cases in Ferguson to Judge Roy Richter from the Eastern District of Missouri in response to a Department of Justice report that found the city of Ferguson used its municipal court as little more than an ATM. Thursday was Richter's first night in his new role.

The new fees are similar to those charged by the state and St. Louis County, and court costs are now limited to $26.50. Richter called the limits, which will remain in place even after his appointment is over, the fair thing to do. 

Ferguson and other municipal courts have come under fire for routinely issuing arrest warrants for people who don't show up to court, some because they say are unable to pay their fines and are afraid of telling the judge that. Richter made it clear to defendants he was willing to work with them to set up payment plans — something he could do only if they showed up.

"Bottom line is, you’ve got a court date, come to court," he said. "They’ll take care of it. You won’t be arrested if you don’t have your payments made, we’re not going to keep you here until you pay in full."

He added that he is looking to expand a community service program available to defendants under the age of 19 to older men and women who simply have no way to pay the fines.

Attorneys representing defendants in Ferguson said they were skeptical that Richter being on the bench would lead to much change. It might help people feel that the judge is acting fairly, said Justin Farishon, a lawyer for 24 protesters arrested at various times.

"But the machinery is still running the way it always has," he said. "There still sending people up one at a time, still doing things quietly in the front [of the courtroom] so no one knows, they’re not being any more likely to dismiss charges."

Farishon said he was disappointed that city officials didn’t take their cues from Richter and change the way they do things.

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.