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Inside Maplewood’s $3.25 million debtors’ prison settlement

A photo of the Maplewood police department and municipal court.
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Maplewood is the latest municipality to settle a lawsuit accusing it of a debtors' prison-style system.

In 2014, Frank Williams and his wife were driving home after a grocery trip in Maplewood. But when police pulled him over to question him about the dents in his truck, the officers ran Williams’ name through their database — and found a two-year-old municipal violation for failing to show proof of insurance.

“They said, ‘We're about to lock you up,’” Williams recalled to St. Louis on the Air. “We're going to lock your car up, and you too.”

Williams was indeed arrested by Maplewood police officers. He eventually spent 16 days in three different jails, as he was shuffled from Richmond Heights to Jennings and finally to St. Louis. When he was moved, courts added additional fines for other, years-old municipal violations.

The conditions were hard on Williams. “The first jail, they didn't let you wash up. Then, the second jail, they just let you wash up one time, that was it. And that’s outrageous.”

Today, Williams is among the plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit against Maplewood. The case, first filed in 2016, spent years slowly moving through the legal system. Last month, the law firm ArchCity Defenders announced that the city had agreed to a $3.25 million settlement.

Nathaniel Carroll, a senior staff attorney with ArchCity Defenders.
Nathaniel Carroll, a senior staff attorney with ArchCity Defenders.
Danny Wicentowski
Nathaniel Carroll, a senior staff attorney with ArchCity Defenders

The development marks the fourth time a St. Louis County municipality has settled with the law firm over the existence of predatory court practices that attorneys compare to modern-day debtors’ prisons.

“The term 'debtors' prison’ simply means that you're imprisoning people for money that they owe,” said Nathaniel Carroll, a senior staff attorney with ArchCity Defenders. He noted that under Maplewood’s system, “the jailing decisions and the amounts of bond assigned to collect those (debts) is typically decided arbitrarily by the captors, the police.”

In the suit, Maplewood was accused of routinely jailing people without inquiring into their ability to pay, a violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights. Carroll said Maplewood generated around $1 million annually from the fines and fees.

“Rather than sending the debts to collection agencies or expending their own resources to mail out reminders or invoices, [the City of Maplewood] used the police force,” he continued. “Once someone has been arrested, they have very little choice but to try to call family and friends to scrape money together — or sit in jail until they pay. It's a very effective tool.”

That tool has now led Maplewood to pay out millions to the people it fined and jailed. However, the settlement did not require the city to admit any wrongdoing or liability.

Under the terms of the settlement, anyone who was ordered to pay Maplewood's fines or served jail time between Nov. 1, 2011, and Nov. 18, 2021, is eligible for a portion of the settlement. That includes some 7,000 people who were jailed by Maplewood and over 20,000 people who paid fines and fees. People can learn more by calling 1-888-477-1779 or visiting maplewoodclassaction.com.

To learn more about the system of debtors’ prisons in St. Louis County, including an update from attorney Nathaniel Carroll about additional pending lawsuits, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Maplewood debtors' prison leads to multimillion-dollar settlement
Listen to Frank Williams and Nathaniel Carrroll on "St. Louis on the Air"

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."