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Jennings settles federal lawsuit over municipal court; voluntary reforms coming elsewhere

Protesters outside St. Louis County headquarters on Feb. 2, 2015 call for reforms of the municipal court system.
File photo by Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Updated with comments from the Municipal Court Improvement Committee — The city of Jennings has agreed to make major changes to the way it operates its municipal court.

The changes are part of a proposed settlement to a federal lawsuit brought on behalf of 10 individuals who say they were held in the Jennings jail solely because they could not pay a traffic fine. Federal judge Carol E. Jackson must still formally accept the terms for them to take effect.

"We are very happy with the agreement," said Michael-John Voss, with the nonprofit legal agency Arch City Defenders, which filed the suit along with Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law and the Saint Louis University legal clinic. "The city of Jennings worked from the outset to address our concerns. In the end, everyone agrees that it violates fundamental and longstanding principles of equality and fairness at the core of our legal system to keep a human being in a cage because of poverty."

The proposed changes

Once Judge Jackson accepts the settlement, the city  will dismiss and forgive all fines and fees levied in cases before March 12, 2011. Going forward, Jennings will:

  • Eliminate cash bail, and release those who have no other arrests on their records on their own recognizance, unless the person has been arrested for crimes like assault or domestic violence, or those who appear to be intoxicated or incapacitated.
  • Conduct a "meaningful inquiry" into whether a person can pay a fine or fee levied. A person would be considered indigent if they are making at or below 125 percent of the poverty level, or about $15,000 a year for an individual.
  • Eliminate the payment docket. "There will no longer be court dates solely designed just to extort payments," said Brendan Roediger of the SLU legal clinic.
  • Unpaid fines and fees will be collected through the civil process, which eliminates the threat of jail.

Though Roediger and his co-counsel applauded the settlement for giving defendants in Jennings the proper procedural protection, he said major structural problems still exist in the municipal court system. 
"We still have 81 part-time courts, and what we really need are full-time professional courts that include these protections but can be meaningfully overseen by the circuit court," Roediger said. "We hope that the Supreme Court committee that is currently meeting is thinking about all the procedural protections, and that ultimately the Supreme Court will take the step of ensuring those procedural protections exist everywhere."

Most importantly, Roediger said, unlike voluntary reforms, a federally enforced settlement cannot be undone when money is short.

The administrator of the Jennings court referred calls to the city's attorney in the case, Keith Hanson, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the Jennings lawsuit, the three groups have filed a similar federal lawsuit against Ferguson. That case is proceeding. In addition, the SLU clinic and Arch City Defenders have state-level cases against nine cities alleging the courts are charging illegal fines and fees. There are also legal challenges to the authority of the Bel-Ridge municipal court to issue tickets because it had failed to comply with state law.

Other changes are coming

The announcement of the proposed settlement came a day before new standards for cities and their courts, as well as tighter limits on the traffic revenue they can keep, take effect. Also on Thursday, a group of municipal court officials known as the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee announced its own voluntary plans to eliminate the cash bond system. The committee revealed that most of the 82 municipal courts are participating in at least one prong of the "Fresh Start" initiative, which is a voluntary effort to give defendants a bit of relief from the consequences of unpaid traffic fines.

Many of the courts are recalling old arrest warrants and issuing new court dates. Others have asked the Missouri Department of Revenue to reinstate suspended driver's licenses, and will halt the practice going forward. Others have eliminated a separate "failure to appear" charge that was often issued when defendants failed to show up for court.

The voluntary changes are meant to turn the municipal courts into "courts of justice," said Frank Vatterott, the municipal judge in Overland and the head of the court improvement committee.

"We know that people will take advantage of our forgiveness here," Vatterott said. "We know that other people will take credit for it, we know that people will still condemn us. None of that matters to us. What matters is that we’re making a statement to get the trust back that we deserve in the third branch of government."

Vatterott said the group is also exploring ways to eliminate cash bail, which can force poorer individuals to remain in jail. That is a requirement in the proposed settlement in Jennings.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter:@rlippmann

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