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With state municipal overhaul looming, Ferguson makes changes to its court

File photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
A Ferguson police officer and police dog stand by a police vehicle outside the Ferguson Police Department.

Ferguson announced alterations to its embattled municipal court, including recalling warrants and providing alternative punishments.

The moves come as a multi-faceted state overhaul of the municipal court system is expected to have a sweeping impact on St. Louis County cities.

Ferguson Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin announced in a statement that he was withdrawing all arrest warrants that were issued before Dec. 31, 2014. The city’s statement said that defendants would  “then be given new court dates along with alternative dispositions, such as payment plans, community service and/or commuting fines for indigent persons.”

Other alterations to the court announced in the news release include:

  • No longer incarcerating someone who has an arrest warrant out for a minor traffic violation. Instead, the person would “released on their own recognizance and given another court date.”
  • The city would reinstate suspended driver’s licenses that the Department of Revenue held up solely for a defendant’s failure to appear in court or failure to pay a fine.

McCullin said in a statement that “these changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court and giving many residents a fresh start.”
“Individuals whose license has been suspended will be able to obtain them and take advantage of the benefits of being able to drive,” he said. “Moreover, defendants will not be disadvantaged in being afforded pre-trial release because of the inability to make bond.”

The announced changes come as a municipal court overhaul known as Senate Bill 5 is set to go into effect on Friday. Provisions include no longer requiring someone to pay court costs if a defendant is indigent or the case is dismissed, allowing a portion of somebody’s income tax refund to pay for fines and fees, and no longer issuing a charge for failing to appear in court.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said in a statement that the Ferguson City Council supports McCullins’ changes.

“The Ferguson City Council was informed of the proposed actions by Judge McCullin and applauds the recall of the arrest warrants and the rescission of the driver’s license suspensions in compliance with Senate Bill 5 and as a way to restore confidence in the Municipal Court,” Knowles said.

Even more sweeping?

The U.S. Department of Justice singled out Ferguson's municipal court earlier this year, contending "it does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct." Rather, the DOJ alleged that it "primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the city’s financial interests." And the report said the court practices  impose "unnecessary harm, overwhelmingly on African-American individuals, and run counter to public safety." 

Arch City Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey speaking during a 2014 meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Arch City Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey speaking during a recent meeting of the Ferguson Commission.

Shortly after the report came out, Ronald Brockmeyer resigned as Ferguson's municipal court judge.The Ferguson City Council then appointed McCullin, a former circuit judge, to replace Brockmeyer.

At least one critic of how cities around the region run their municipal courts questioned whether Ferguson’s changes go far enough — or if they’ll actually make a person’s life easier.

Thomas Harvey of the ArchCity Defenders said recalling warrants is significant. He said “to not be driving around for threat of arrest at all times for what amounts to being poor makes a big psychological difference.”

But he said after his organization and the Department of Justice pointed out widespread problems with Ferguson’s municipal court, it may have sent an even louder message to people if the city had dismissed cases as opposed to recalling warrants.

“I think there’s enough question as to the legitimacy of the warrants ... that they could get rid of the cases,” Harvey said. “This is yet another warrant recall program that we’ve had many of. And the cynic in me says this isn’t a gesture of good will, but it is rather a lawyer’s way of complying with the requirements in Senate Bill 5 that are not exactly spelled out.”

More broadly though, Harvey wondered aloud if the changes in Ferguson would matter that much if the county’s roughly 80 municipal courts have differing rules and philosophies. And he questioned whether the same people who have run municipal courts for decades should be the ones making alterations.

He added that if cities really wanted to restore trust, then “why wouldn’t those towns turn over their jurisdiction of those courts to the associate circuit court or create a regional court system so that they’re no longer in charge of it?

“It always baffles me as to why we would entrust the people that designed the system that we spent the last year trying to fix with fixing the system,” Harvey said. “If you ask any of our clients, they don’t trust the folks who are in these positions of power. And people have lost that trust because of the last 50 years of policies that violated the Constitution and destroyed their lives.

“We can’t continue with this piecemeal approach,” he added. “The real solution is to consolidate these courts into one court or four regional courts so that individual defendants don’t have to figure out what the policy is of every single court in this region.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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