1.) The Court System
2.) Fines and FTA’s
3.) Traffic Only – Get out of Jail Free
4.) Conflicts of Interest
5.) Racial Components
6.) Recent Lawsuit against Ferguson and Jennings
7.) My Solution
Municipal court reform is an issue that has come up frequently over the years. As a topic, it is a broad ill-defined anomalous category of many issues. It has most recently been brought up in reference to the unrest in Ferguson, though Muni Courts have literally nothing to do with what happened to Mike Brown and Darren Wilson. However, that’s not to say that municipal courts are without any problems. Far from it. To understand what’s wrong with the muni courts, you have to understand the division of jurisprudence in the state of Missouri.
1.) The Court System
In terms of criminal offenses, at the top rung you have your federal district courts. These courts unsurprisingly handle federal offenses. In Missouri, the county in which a crime is committed handles violations of state statute. Felonies are handled at this level. However, misdemeanors can also be handled here as well if you are a state or county level agency such as the Missouri State Highway Patrol or the St. Louis County Police Department.
For St. Louis County, Bob McCulloch’s office is responsible for prosecuting these offenses. In St. Louis City, Jennifer Joyce’s office is responsible for prosecuting the same offenses because the City of St. Louis is considered autonomous and it’s own county separate from St. Louis County. The county seat of St. Louis County is the municipality of Clayton, Mo, which is why the county courthouse among many other county level government buildings are located there.
I realize that matters are already confusing. Prepare yourself, because it’s only going to get worse from here.
The next rung, underneath the State (county) courts, are municipal courts which handle offenses committed against city ordinance. Some ordinances can be as minor as exceeding the posted speed limit or allowing your weeds to grow above a certain point. These are known as infractions.
However, other ordinance violations can be more serious rising to the level of a misdemeanor. For example, assault third, domestic assault third, stealing under, and DWI first and second offense. There are equivalent state statutes that cover these crimes as well, but for most misdemeanors occurring within a municipality, they are handled by the muni court as violation of ordinance even if there is a redundant state statute. A conviction for a misdemeanor from a muni court is treated the same as a conviction from the state court.
In theory, this system should help to alleviate the case load to the overburdened state courts so that they can focus on more serious crimes. However, in North St. Louis County in particular, potential problems are exacerbated by an overarching problem of far too many small municipalities. Essentially these entities are fiefdoms with governments elected by exceptionally small groups of people. The established municipality is then allowed to own and operate municipal courts of their own.
As evidence of the absurdity of this system, there are approximately 90 municipalities in St. Louis County. That literally means that there are 90 small cities bordering the city of St. Louis. Some are as small as 292 people, like Venita Terrace. Most, like those running along Natural Bridge seem to be in the neighborhood of 1,500 to 5,000 residents a piece.
There are a number of exceptions. For example, Ferguson has around 21,000 residents. Florissant has around 50,000 residents. Chesterfield has around 48,000 residents. There are approximately 16,000 residents in Clayton. There are approximately 26,000 residents in Hazelwood.
A lot of people from outside the region mistakenly believe that these cities exist as cities in a smaller area exist. However, for the purposes of that perspective, there is by and large no open land between the municipalities to set them apart geographically as you would see in a smaller county with spaced out small towns. The borders are completely arbitrary as further evidenced by the size of many of these municipalities in a county that has around a literal million people living in it.
2.) Fines and FTA’s
The focus of the Ferguson Twitter Brigade has been on the cost of fines and corresponding Failure to Appear (FTA) warrants, which they have likened to modern day debtor’s prisons. For the record, FTA warrants are not the same thing as debtor’s prisons for the simple fact that they refer specifically to one’s mandated court presence instead of their financial status.
FTA’s occur when one does not show up to a court date and has made no effort to get a continuance. FTA’s do not occur when someone simply has an inability to pay a fine. A defendant can show up to court, not be able to pay a fine, and actually get on a payment plan in every jurisdiction I’m familiar with, which is a leniency that actually nets the city far more money than if the defendant simply doesn’t show up or gets arrested.
Consequently, a defendant can also have the ability to pay a fine, refuse to show up to court, and get an FTA for their bad choice. In other words, indigence is not what is being considered here. The root of the acronym is the word, “APPEAR.”
In reference to fines, locals are more often than not referring to tickets. A ticket is more properly known as a summons to appear in court en liu of jail. When someone signs a ticket they are advising that they will take care of the ticket, either by paying the fine or showing up in court, either to fight the charge or explain their financial situation.
This is why you can legally be arrested for a traffic offense. A lot of agencies leave the arrest discretionary but some actually require arrest when someone refuses to sign a ticket. If they show up to court, establish indigency, and then the judge locks them up anyway, that’s a completely different scenario, but it’s not one that appears to be common compared to the much more frequent mischaracterizing of an FTA arrest as simply for “not being able to pay.”
I’m not saying that it hasn’t happened, but it seems like more often than not we’re getting a dishonest partial story. It reminds me of individuals who complain about being pulled over for only going a mile over the speed limit when in reality they were going a mile over the ten miles over they think is acceptable. It’s just not the same thing.
It should be noted that municipal costs for city ordinance violations are set at the municipal level and that is a problem that absolutely should change. Capping municipal fines by state statute would go a long way toward fixing this problem. Lots of recommendations have been made by the state to limit the percent of a city’s income based upon fines. This suggestion doesn’t go far enough in my opinion and is too easy to skate around and too hard to regularly audit.
For example, the state auditor recently made a big deal of a number of municipalities who were accused of exceeding the regulated fine percentage threshold. A number of these municipalities were cities with contracts through the city of Normandy which provides policing and other related services to a number of small municipalities like Cool Valley, Bellerive, and Greendale. When Bellerive is deemed to be collecting too much revenue from fines, is it really their fault or is it the city of Normandy who is contracted to collect those fines through traffic citations? If we follow the percentage of income concept, it’s Bellerive’s fault.
Furthermore, how is income defined? One municipality (which I actually can’t remember at the moment, but I believe was in the area of Moline Acres) was accused of attempting to defraud the state auditor’s office by claiming their entire income by including grant money given to the city for various projects. If I make $10 in fines on a city income of $100, that means that 10% comes from fines. However, if that $100 dollars is bolstered to include $50 dollars in grant money that came from the state last year for road improvement or police equipment, that percentage drops to 6.7%.
All of these issues would be prevented by a flat state level statute capping municipal fines for specific offenses in real numbers. Furthermore, if a municipal government passes an ordinance listing a fine at $101.00 when the limit is set by state statute at $100.00, this is much easier to identify and harder to deny by greedy law makers. They can then be held accountable without the minutia and loopholes of the percentage of income system.
3.) Traffic Only
One of the main problems with warrants in St. Louis County (and city) is that the number of warrants has gotten so far out of control that “traffic only” warrants are typically ignored outright by most officers as a waste of time. This is actually a misdemeanor crime in and of itself, the act of “failing to execute an arrest warrant” (RSMO 575.180). However, it is so widespread due to the overabundance of municipal warrants that I’d estimate 50-75% of the people an officer runs into on a daily basis in North County probably have at least one which could go on their record for years and years without any action whatsoever.
Furthermore, since traffic only warrants are typically not pursued, North County residents have a tendency to blow off court or paying their fines because the chances that they’ll actually be arrested even with that warrant are so ridiculously low. Going even further, police administrators directly contribute to this problem because they also don’t want to be left short handed because their officers are tied up booking and transporting someone because of a warrant originating from a speeding ticket. In other words, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this problem at the level as it currently exists. If tomorrow every single person in North County with a warrant was apprehended upon contact, the jails would probably be filled to capacity with only a fraction of the warrants actually cleared since the problem has been allowed to fester for as long as it has.
However, failing to appear in court, regardless of court cost, is not exactly something that should be tolerated. Amnesty for municipal warrants just reinforces the notion that court dates and summonses are meaningless, because amnesty proves without a doubt that they are.
4.) Conflicts of Interest
In Missouri, there are no apparent restrictions on lawyers to prevent them from serving contradictory positions which to any objective observer is a conflict of interest. For example, a lawyer can be a city judge in one muni, a city attorney/prosecutor in another, while still maintaining law offices in private practice for criminal defense. For a specific example, and as mentioned before in this blog, Anthony Gray, one of the attorneys who represents the Brown family in private practice, is also the city attorney/prosecutor for the city of Pine Lawn.
While specific conflicts of interest are governed and regulated by the Bar Association, they are rarely enforced in any meaningful way. In fact, a Missouri agency I’m aware of outside of the St. Louis area, had a city judge decide that he “didn’t like the attitude” of a man incarcerated on a driving-while-suspended charge. The judge sentenced the offender to 180 days in the city jail which is excessive by any objective definition.
As it turned out, the offender owed the judge several thousand dollars from years prior when the offender was represented by that judge in private practice. That fact alone should have presented a conflict of interest great enough for the judge to recuse himself. Afterward, at minimum the judge should have been punished for not only failing to recuse himself, but also vindictively using the bench as a means of retaliation. For the record, both the judge and offender were white.
Since the concept of “conflict of interest” has become so out of control in Missouri as it pertains to attorneys, regulating such a landscape now is near as impossible as getting the warrant situation under control. However, it’s utterly impossible when attorneys and judges are responsible for this system being as convoluted as it is.
The state can’t even staff a committee about this problem without ironically proving it by having its chair be representative of the problem. Jay Nixon’s state committee on municipal court reform was chaired by local well known St. Louis Attorney, Frank Vatterott, who himself is a north county municipal judge for the city of Overland. The recommendations? Uniformity in fines (but apparently nothing about limits, which makes the recommendation meaningless if fines are uniformly too high) and that the muni’s should provide more money in order to provide more public defender representation for municipal offenders. An attorney feels that the solution to a problem is to give attorneys more money. Color me surprised.
5.) Racial Component
The larger component of the Ferguson Twitter Brigade’s complaint about muni courts has been that the fines and warrants specifically target black people. However, the racial targeting argument fails to acknowledge the racial makeup of most of these municipal governments that are supposedly scheming to make money off of their poor black residents. Ferguson is frequently cited as having a disproportionately white government despite having a majority black community, but beyond racial identity, there is no evidence that FTA’s are only issued to black offenders or that white offenders are not fined at the exact same rate as black offenders. The rate of issuing these fines could still be at issue, but as discussed in previous entries, racial profiling stats don’t actually prove an inherent bias toward this end.
Furthermore, Ferguson’s government demographics are not exactly reflective of the surrounding municipal governments who are all accused of the same basic malicious goal of profiting on the backs of the disenfranchised black community regardless of the makeup of said governments.
Case in point, the city of Pine Lawn is frequently cited as among the most corrupt and abusive governments in North County despite having a predominantly black government. The mayor, Sylvester Caldwell, who is currently facing federal indictment on corruption charges, is a black man. The city attorney, Anthony Gray, who as mentioned is one of the attorneys for Michael Brown’s family, is a black man. Up until 2013, the police chief, Ricky Collins, had been a black man too. Picking Pine Lawn to protest municipal courts (as the Ferguson protesters did last week) is surpremely ironic if the argument of racial bias / bleeding the black community through fines scenario is to be believed. Setting race aside, corruption is rampant in many of these small municipalities but it’s not skin color that’s driving it. Greed is.
However, as mentioned before, the skin color of government officials as well as the residents they serve has nothing to do with their propensity toward racism.
The small size of these municipalities would seem to make it easier for the electorate to hold their politicians to account for corruption. However, the fact that a small number of voices have a greater impact actually creates an environment that is easier to manipulate since there are fewer individuals involved. The best case scenario is instability since every election always comes down to a hand-full of voters. The worst case scenario is career corrupt politicians who have already won over their community and can do no wrong as a result. Woe to anyone who dares to drive through.
6.) Recent Lawsuit
The Archcity Defenders, a not-for-profit affiliated with the St. Louis University School of Law, have filed lawsuits against the city of Ferguson and the city of Jennings for what they consider either unconstitutional imprisonment based upon indigency or unconstitutional imprisonment because indigency was never investigated.
The examples cited within an article by the Post Dispatch a few days ago were scarce on details except for repeated allegations of poor jail conditions or mistreatment. Both issues are interesting to bring up because the hyper focus of the lawsuit is still on warrants due to indigency and not on the far more serious and easy to prove allegations of 6th amendment violations, cruel and unusual treatment through improper conditions or other related abuses.
6th amendment violations have nothing to do with their main argument. In order for their main argument to be valid regarding indigency, they must prove that these individuals were:
A.) Unable to pay their fines
B.) Showed up to court and were jailed after stating this fact, for that fact
If they were able to pay their fines, than the issue is moot. If they simply refused to show up for court, the FTA warrant is justified regardless. Not being able to pay a bond after an individual is arrested on a justified FTA warrant is not unconstitutional. Constitutional requirement only dictates that a bond be “reasonable” not “affordable.” As stated before, bond is en liu of jail and if an individual establishes their propensity not to show up for court, a reasonable bond would be higher than for an individual who has not shown such a propensity.
Let’s be clear: the reason for Ferguson’s name being in the lawsuit has nothing to do with actual evidence of wrong doing but to capitalize on regional anger and an opinion held by protesters that the Ferguson government is racist and deserving of punishment. If the Cruel and Unusual punishment evidence was stronger (or existed at all) the lawsuit would in fact be focused on that topic rather than the much more trivial issue they’ve decided to champion in comparison.
7.) My solution:
- Consolidate the tiny municipalities. Small police departments inadequately funded by small governments creates an environment where underqualified individuals go to work because those that can find employment elsewhere will do so. When underqualified individuals gain rank because there is no one else to promote, bad officers beget bad officers.
- Pass laws making it easier to prosecute more forms of corruption and applying it to all governmental bodies including judges, city boards, mayors, and yes, even the police.
- Pass better state level protections for whistle blowers with punitive consequences for those that violate those protections. As things stand, victims of violations of whistle blower protections for corruption/illegal activity in the state of Missouri are only entitled to lost wages and not even court costs. This is contrary to protections for whistle blowing on allegations of sexual or gender discrimination which includes court costs as well. Federal protections apparently only apply if you’re a federal witness or a federal employee.
- Cap municipal fines in terms of real numbers. A speeding ticket should not cost $400 dollars and a percentage cap does nothing to prevent such an outrageous fine. If the acceptable percentage of my city’s income for fines comes out to around $1600, that means that I can still write four completely outrageous tickets to get to that level. I just have to stop afterward.
- Educate citizens about local payment plans for fines.
- Prevent attorneys from cashing in by holding contradictory roles within the criminal justice system.
- Enforce the failure to execute an arrest warrant statute so warrants don’t sit for years. If they are valid warrants in the first place, they should be executed. If not, they should never have been issued. See #2.