As many people around the country have recently learned, if you want a fair shake, don’t get ensnared in the legal system of Ferguson, Missouri. The recent DOJ report laid bare not just the institutional racism of the Ferguson Police Department, as well as that municipality’s “revenue-by- cop” scheme for financing city services; it also documented the unfair practices of its municipal court.
This afternoon, the Missouri Supreme Court weighed in, calling for the immediate transfer of all Ferguson municipal court cases to St. Louis County.
That move is a serious rebuke to Ferguson, where—as anyone caught in the Ferguson judicial vortex can tell you—warrants, traffic fines, and financial penalties for failure-to-appear routinely pile on top of one another and often result in what is, in effect, debtor’s prison.
The Missouri Supreme Court described its action as “.intended to help restore public trust and confidence in the Ferguson municipal court division.”
Collection by cop
You’ve probably already read about many of the abuses. The New York Times described some of them this way:
The [Ferguson] revenue-generating enterprise described in the [DOJ] report begins with the police, who, under pressure to “fill the revenue pipeline,” compete with one another to see how many citations they can issue in a single traffic stop. Those cited are then summoned before a court to face fines that city officials boast are among the highest in the region, with hundreds of dollars levied for such violations as “peace disturbance,” “failure to comply” and “manner of walking.” For all three violations, more than nine out of 10 of those cited were black.
There goes the judge
There has also been a lot of publicity around here about the man who serves as Ferguson’s municipal judge. Judge Ronald J. Brockmeyer is reported to owe as much as $170,000 in tax liens against his home—at the same time that he has been sentencing others—whose fines exceed their means—to jail time for being in arrears.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
Brockmeyer was criticized in the DOJ report for acting as a revenue-generator for the court and the city, helping to bring in millions through “creative” use of fines and fees, while dismissing tickets for himself and friends. The report also rapped him for instilling fear in traffic defendants, even jailing one man for 10 days because the man refused to answer questions in court.
After the MO Supreme Court action, Brockmeyer immediately resigned his position in Ferguson, but he will continue as municipal court judge in neighboring Breckenridge Hills and as municipal court prosecutor in nearby Dellwood, Vinita Park and Florissant—where he can presumably continue to do similar damage. Brockmeyer reportedly was paid $20,000 a year for his duties in Ferguson.
It’s not just Ferguson
Arch City Defenders, a non-profit that provides pro bono legal services for people with cases in municipal courts in the St. Louis, recently released a report that reveals similar judicial abuses in other municipalities in North St. Louis County. Examples, in small communities near Ferguson, include:
Statistics for Bel-Ridge, Missouri
•Bel-Ridge’s 2014 budget estimates that it will collect $450,000 in fine revenue ($385,000 in 2013, a $65,000 increase)
Or, an average, an increase of about $450 per Bel-Ridge household—making municipal court fines the largest single source of revenue in the budget
Statistics for Beverly Hills, Missouri
•Population: 574 (92.68% African-American)
•Size of town: .09 square miles
•Police force: 14, which also provides services to neighboring Velda Village Hills
•Cases filed in 2013: 3,250 traffic tickets, 1,085 ordinance violations
•$221,164.63 in court fines and fees
•26.37% of Revenue from Fines and Fees
Statistics for Calverton Park, Missouri
•Population: 1,293 (42.23% African-American)
•Size of town: .41 square miles
•Police force: 7
•Cases filed in 2013: 5,039 traffic tickets, 2,436 ordinance violations
•$484,066.56 in court fines and fees
•66.32% of general revenue from fines and fees
The list goes on. You can read the complete Arch City report here.
People who, for so many years, have been victimized by the unjust practices of these municipalities, are not surprised by these numbers. For the rest of us, it’s time to wake up and push harder for change.