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Municipal Courts Are Less Of A Cash Cow Five Years After Ferguson, But Problems Remain

Members of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment conduct a silent protest during a public hearing on municipal court reform on Nov. 12, 2015.
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Members of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment conduct a silent protest during a public hearing on municipal court reform in 2015.

Michael Brown’s 2014 death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer painted a clear picture of the troubled relationship between the police and the community, and also abusive municipal court practices that disregarded defendants’ rights.

Defendants were held in jail for weeks or months because they couldn’t afford excessive bonds. Others were arrested because they couldn’t pay the fines and fees, some of which were illegal. Some courts were little more than cash cows for their cities.

Legislation and lawsuits over the past five years have made a difference, and people who deal with municipal courts are noticing.

“After Michael Brown’s murder, the system is significantly kinder and gentler than it used to be,” said Eric Banks, an attorney with years of experience in the region’s municipal courts.

Banks was in Normandy’s morning court on a recent Thursday, handling a speeding ticket for a client. Defendants — there were 50 or so on this particular day — waited in the city council chambers for court to begin. A slideshow outlining their rights, and what to expect for their appearance, flashed on the wall. Some had their children with them.

The clerk called court to order right on time at 9 a.m. Judge Jennifer Fisher spent the first 15 minutes or so reminding defendants that they could plead not guilty, and when they should consult a lawyer. Then she called the first defendant to the podium.

Many defendants pleaded not guilty. Others admitted their guilt but didn’t have the money available to pay the fines and fees in full. Fisher gave many of them until October to get the amount needed. Few had attorneys with them.

“Just watching the way Judge Fisher was talking to the people without attorneys, she may have been that way five-plus years ago, but now that is the rule rather than the exception,” Banks said.

Getting pulled over is still expensive — Banks said his client will have to pay a $200 fine plus court costs. 

“They’re getting their money, but they’re getting it with preserving the people’s dignity by and large,” he said. “Without a doubt, justice is being served better.”

Forcing changes

The municipal court practices revealed after Brown’s death were problematic at best and unconstitutional at worst, said Michael-John Voss, a co-founder of the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders. 

“People were being locked up because of their inability to pay fines and fees, and were being held indefinitely until possibly going in front of a judge, sometimes weeks, sometimes longer than that — and while that was happening, the collateral consequences of losing one’s job, losing one’s housing, basically furthering one’s poverty, occurs,” Voss said.

Michael-John Voss, managing attorney for Arch City Defenders, at the firm's office in St. Louis.
Credit File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Michael-John Voss, a founder of ArchCity Defenders, says things have improved in municipal courts, but more changes are still needed.

ArchCity, which Voss helped start in 2009, had long represented individuals facing municipal court charges. Their attorneys shifted in 2014 to filing class-action lawsuits to challenge the “systemic abuses” they had seen, he said.

Those lawsuits have resulted in cities paying more than $8 million in damages and forgiving more than $5.5 million in debt. 

There’s been a move away from “policing for profit,” Voss said. Since 2014, municipal court revenue is down 78% in St. Louis County. State court data show a large drop in the number of municipal court cases filed — about 966,000 in 2018, compared to 1.6 million in 2014.

Some of that shift was driven by legislation known as Senate Bill 5. It capped municipal court revenue at 20% of a city’s budget. Defendants had to appear in front of a judge within 48 hours, and be given a payment plan they could afford. 

“There’s a lot of reflection that everyone is going to encounter with the five-year anniversary of Ferguson, but one of the things that people should be particularly proud of is that Missouri did come together and enact the most sweeping municipal reform in our state’s history, and it has improved the lives of people,” said Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who led the charge for Senate Bill 5 as a Republican state senator from Glendale. “I think it’s become a national model.”

The court system also instituted its own reforms. The Missouri Supreme Court made it clear that municipal courts were part of the judicial branch and could not be overseen by city government officials. Defendants had to be informed of their rights. Courts had to be open a minimum of 30 hours a week, and children had to be allowed inside so parents living paycheck to paycheck wouldn’t be forced to get child care to attend court.

“It wasn’t reform in the sense that they compiled all the laws that had been around for years and years but not in one place,” said retired St. Louis County Circuit Judge Douglas Beach. 

As the county’s presiding judge in 2016, Beach was in charge of making sure that the 77 municipal courts were meeting the minimum standards.

“Technically the presiding judge had always been in charge, but there was never a lot of oversight of the municipal divisions, and it was a re-emphasis that since the 1970s, municipal courts have been clearly part of the judiciary and under the guidance and authority of the Supreme Court,” he said.

From his perspective, Beach said, most of the courts in St. Louis did not have to work very hard to meet the minimum standards, although things like having a website and a separate clerk for the court and the rest of the city may be expensive for smaller municipalities.

He wasn’t entirely sure if the new standards truly serve the interest of justice, calling it an “interesting and hard question.”

“I went to a court one night, and they had 125 cases on the docket,” Beach said. “And 121 people pleaded guilty. Many of them had something that we call ‘guilty with an explanation.’ There’s no such thing in the law, but I think people feel more like they’re being heard.”

Still, others found the changes unnecessary.

“I think the focus has been entirely on St. Louis County with no consideration for the rest of the state,” said Don Lograsso, a municipal judge for two towns near Kansas City. “I think some of it has been a result of Ferguson and the press that was received as a result of that, with no recognition that things were working right in other places.”

For example, Lograsso said, he feels like defendants on payment plans have to pay a set amount every month, rather than telling him what they can pay. 

Making the reforms stick

Ferguson courthouse
Credit File photo | Bill Greenblatt | UPI
The Ferguson municipal court and police station.

“The reforms that happened post-Ferguson that were voluntary are good, and we applaud the voluntary reform,” said Voss, with ArchCity Defenders. "At any point in time, they could backslide. And with a federal judgment, that won’t happen.” 

Even federal oversight doesn’t guarantee success. Voss points to Ferguson, which he said is falling short of required changes to its police department and municipal courts.

And the legislation and lawsuits haven’t done anything to change who is ending up in municipal court.

“You can go to Ferguson and see that the lines are down a little bit, you can see that, but it’s still again, predominately, even though the town’s only 67% black, mostly, 99% of the population that’s going into court is black,” Voss said.

The latest statewide traffic stop data from the attorney general’s office bear that out. Black drivers are still stopped, searched and arrested at higher rates than white drivers.

Schmitt says his office just collects the data, which he says doesn’t give a complete picture. For example, he says, the hometowns of people who are pulled over aren’t included.

“Regardless of their race, their gender, their creed, whatever it is, people deserve to be treated fairly under the law. That’s really important,” he said. “Policy solutions can come from that, but I think making sure that people have the most accurate information is important.”

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