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Thousands who were jailed in St. Ann are eligible for compensation from settlement

Police arrest
Nicole Xu
Special to NPR
Thousands of people who were jailed in St. Ann are entitled to money from a $3.1 million class-action settlement.

More than 35,000 people in the St. Louis region are eligible to claim money from a $3.125 million settlement that ArchCity Defenders has reached with St. Ann.

The St. Louis civil rights organization sued the City of St. Ann in 2016, claiming it violated the civil rights of people who were jailed between Aug. 9, 2011, and Nov. 14, 2022. The lawsuit sought damages for those who were part of the alleged scheme to illegally detain people without asking about their ability to pay bond amounts and use jailing or the threat of jail time to extract fines and fees.

This lawsuit is one of seven class-action suits that ArchCity Defenders has filed against other St. Louis municipalities since 2015. People were routinely asking for representation for being jailed in municipalities for not being able to pay small sums of money, said Maureen Hanlon, an ArchCity Defenders attorney.

“I think a lot of people around the region will kind of identify with this because one of the ways that they [St. Ann] maintained their town was through really aggressive traffic enforcement,” Hanlon said.

The settlement also requires St. Ann to forgive all fines, costs, surcharges and fees from municipal ordinance violations that were given to people between Aug. 1, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2014.

How St. Ann's policies led to a $3.1 million settlement
Listen to Quinton Thomas, who was jailed multiple times in St. Ann, and Maureen Hanlon of ArchCity Defenders on "St. Louis on the Air"

Many people who were jailed in St. Ann also complained to lawyers about its jail conditions, which brought about a companion lawsuit that alleged the city’s jail was overcrowded, filled with human waste and lacked proper hygiene products and facilities for detainees.

Potential class members must file a claim between Oct. 31 and Feb. 28 to be considered in the settlement. The total amount of damages awarded to each class member will be contingent on the number of hours they were held in St. Ann jail.

The lawsuit claimed that the City of St. Ann knew that the conditions of its jail were so bad that people would pay any amount of money for their freedom, Hanlon said.

“The City of St. Ann — this is our allegation — would issue these tickets, and then they would think either people will pay some of them or will arrest them,” she said. “People would be so desperate to not be in jail, that they'll end up paying this bond money.”

She said most of the detainees who were locked up during that period in St. Ann jail were either poor or Black residents. After a few days of jail time, some were given bond amounts that were as low as a few hundred dollars, which many could not afford.

“Part of our organization's argument is that the municipal system is driving poverty,” Hanlon said. “Because you're not being able to drive your car, not having an up-to-date driver's license, being pulled out of your home — which luckily doesn't happen anymore in St. Ann — but that's disrupting people's ability to have steady employment and have steady housing.”

According to the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator records, St. Ann municipal court received in 2015 over $3 million in revenue. Since the lawsuit was filed, the court’s revenue decreased to about $96,200 in 2022.

Donya Pierce is among the thousands who will receive money from the settlement. In 2015, she was riding with a friend when St. Ann police pulled them over and said the driver had a broken tail light. Police arrested Pierce because she had warrants and outstanding tickets in several other St. Louis County municipalities.

Pierce stayed in St. Ann jail for three weeks. She said the first week the judge ordered her to pay about $1,100 in bond to get out of jail, but she could not afford it, which caused her to stay in jail for a second week. And by the third week, the judge finally granted her time served.

“I lost my job … we were out of place for a while,” she said. “My son had to repeat the second grade, because our life was in shambles after that.”

Pierce said that the money is a blessing, but her mental health has severely suffered and no money can replace the time she spent away from her family. She hopes the settlement holds St. Ann accountable for its actions.

“When it comes to the people, I'm glad that we are getting some type of justice and some type of foot being put down as far as how we are allowed to be treated based off of our pockets,” Pierce said.

The City of St. Ann has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.