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Ferguson to keep prosecuting hundreds of older municipal court cases

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley appeals a judge's ruling to block two abortion restrictions in the state.
The city of Ferguson plans to prosecute about 1,500 municipal cases that are at least four years old.

The city of Ferguson says it plans to keep prosecuting about 1,500 municipal court cases that attorneys filed before 2014 — a decision that bothers advocates who point out they were the product of a policing system the federal government found unconstitutional.

Apollo Carey, the attorney for the city, told U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry on Tuesday that court officials had reviewed about 7,900 of those older cases since December. That review was part of a 2016 agreement Ferguson signed with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a civil rights lawsuit. It was part of the quarterly update provided by the city, the DOJ, and the third party overseeing the deal.

Ferguson was allowed to keep prosecuting cases where it found “good cause” to do so, a term that was not defined in the consent decree.

City officials requested the language allowing them to keep the older cases alive, said the Advancement Project’s Thomas Harvey, who worked on municipal court reform as the founder of ArchCity Defenders.

“And what they’re doing is saying, 'We will delay dismissing all these cases that we know were brought by a failed legal system, both police and courts, because of this provision that we added to the consent decree,'” Harvey said. “They may have been the product of racial profiling; they may have been the product of targeting; they may have been the product of targeting people simply for revenue. We don’t know that.”

Carey told the judge the city was having trouble figuring out a way to notify people their cases would be continuing. Officials mailed letters to people who had their cases dropped, he said, but more than 70 percent were returned as undeliverable — showing the difficulty of tracking down defendants in cases that are at least four years old.

Perry said she understood the dilemma but did not offer a solution.

Both Perry and the Justice Department were complimentary of the progress Ferguson is making toward reforming its police and municipal court practices. Officers will soon get training on new body camera and use-of-force policies, and a new stop, search and arrest policy will be ready for review in a few weeks.

But residents who spoke to Perry were less rosy about how things were going. Many were frustrated with what they saw as a lack of transparency and communication from the city. Others thought the process was moving too slowly.

“When I get arrested and ticketed, I get 30 days to get my things straightened out,” Justin Idleburg, a St. Louis resident, told Perry. “Why are you being so lenient on them? Can we speed this up and get to actionable things?”

Attorneys with the Justice Department said they believed the city was making progress, and that working cooperatively helped ensure that reforms would be more successful. Perry said she agreed.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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