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Report finds Ferguson's court operations making progress

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

Ferguson's municipal court has significantly improved its operations since the release of a blistering federal report in March, the office that handles administrative affairs for the courts in Missouri has found.

The Office of State Courts Administrator put together the report released Monday at the request of the Supreme Court of Missouri. The report reflects what court administration experts found as they studied the practices of the Ferguson municipal court.

The report concluded that a number of the most disturbing findings in the Department of Justice report have been addressed, including the fact that the Ferguson police and courts acted in concert to generate money for the city, rather than to protect public safety.

Administrators found that the Ferguson City Council acted in September to eliminate a separate "failure to appear" charge and several fees that go above and beyond state-mandated court costs, and that court personnel had begun to take into account the ability of a defendant to pay when setting the amount of fines. Basic court operations have also improved, with court administrators noting that defendants now have a clearer idea of what to expect when they come to court.

 The report seems to give much of the credit for the changes to the decision by the Missouri Supreme Court to appoint Appeals Judge Roy Richter to hear Ferguson's municipal docket after its judge, Ronald Brockmeyer, resigned.

On his first night hearing cases, for example, Richter set new fines and fees that more closely match those issued in St. Louis County, and capped court costs at $26.50. Court experts wrote that "in the court proceedings they have observed, Judge Richter has been attentive and willing to listen to defendants as well as any defense counsel who may appear."

But those same experts also raised some concerns with the way the municipal court conducts business.  They encouraged the city to get its electronic payment system operational as soon as possible and to make it clear that the system will accept partial payments. It also found that the court's electronic records system violates court rules, because the servers are located off-site, and court employees have no copies of the case management data. There were also several flaws in the contract Ferguson signed with the company, ITI, including a lack of safeguards to prevent unauthorized access to the data.

The court experts also raised questions about conflicts of interest embedded in the system. Though court personnel are no longer under the supervision of the chief of police, the report noted that having them report to the city finance manager was equally problematic, as "the city finance manager — as a part of the executive branch of government — could place undue pressure on the clerk staff — who are part of the judicial branch of government — to focus on revenue rather than fairness and due process of law." 

The report also found that Ferguson court personnel were not following the rules governing how ordinance violations should be prosecuted. 

“The experts learned, through their observations of the Ferguson court, that the court staff are responsible for handling work for the prosecutor – who is part of the executive branch of government but who does not maintain a file separate from that maintained by the court, a part of the judicial branch of government. Additionally, it appears the prosecutor does not review case files unless an attorney enters an appearance or unless the judge or defendant asks questions about the file or unless a defendant otherwise requests a trial. Further, it appears the prosecutor does not review case filings until after they are filed in the court; instead, the police file the citations, the court staff open a file, and only sometime thereafter does the prosecutor review the case.”

Richter and the experts who reviewed the court suggested that outside organizations such as the National Center for State Courts evaluate how a small municipality such as Ferguson that may not have the necessary administrative support staff can maintain the strict lines between the prosecutor and the judicial branch.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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