CommunityThe Dissenter

Ferguson’s Municipal Court System Makes Millions Off Targeting Black and Poor People

Community residents march on West Florissant Avenue, call for justice for Mike Brown

A small nonprofit organization, which provides “holistic legal advocacy” to poverty-stricken residents in St. Louis County, didn’t believe their clients when they claimed they were being incarcerated for not paying fines, targeted for being black and poor and denied access to municipal courts, particularly when they brought their children with them. The organization decided to conduct a “court watching” program and observed about 60 different courts. It produced a report that largely confirmed the allegations of clients.

In the aftermath of the killing of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the report [PDF] from ArchCity Defenders has been receiving attention for the critical context it provides.

“It is not uncommon for young black men to be shot by police officers in the United States of America,” declared Thomas Harvey, one of the organization’s co-founders. “Every time that happens there aren’t riots. So people were searching for explanation,” and, “I think our report gives some context to why there’s an additional level of frustration about the interaction between law enforcement and community.”

It highlights how fines issued by the Ferguson municipal court earned the small suburb of St. Louis $2.6 million in revenue in 2013. Ferguson was also one of three municipal courts in the county, which were chronic offenders when it came to violating the fundamental rights of the poor.

From the report:

…Many residents feel that the police and the courts target black residents and try to find something to fine them for. As one defendant said, “They’re searching to find something wrong. If you dig deep enough, you’ll always find dirt.” Another group of defendants waiting outside of a municipal court noted that there were no white individuals waiting with them. In fact, one said, “You go to all of these damn courts, and there’s no white people,” while another defendant even ticked off specific municipalities that he thinks engage in racial profiling. He said, “In Dellwood, Ferguson, basically in North County, if you’re black, they’re going to stop you…

According to statistics in the report, “86% of vehicle stops involved black motorists although blacks make up just 67% of population; by comparison, whites comprise 29% of the population of Ferguson but just 12.7% of vehicle stops.” Blacks stopped in Ferguson are nearly twice as likely as whites to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested, however, contraband is seized from whites more often than blacks.

On average, one household in Ferguson has 3 warrants. In 2013, the municipal court “disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,013 cases.”

Harvey explained that, legally, the courts are not doing anything wrong by issuing all these warrants and incarcerating a person for not paying fines or failing to appear in court. That does not change the fact that warrants are “wreaking havoc” on the lives of people in communities like Ferguson.

Our clients “feel like they’re being exploited and they believe that it’s because they’re poor and they’re members of communities of color,” Harvey shared. It is often part of the reason why clients they help are struggling with homelessness.

A number of residents from the St. Louis area have been arrested while demonstrating for justice for Brown. They were not immediately released because they had warrants or fines and this gave authorities the ability to keep them in jail.

In theory, Harvey suggested the municipal court structure was created to benefit the middle class so they could “avoid the impact of pleading guilty to ordinance violations.” This structure does not exist in counties outside the St. Louis region. It helps individuals avoid certain consequences that would normally be levied. Of course, avoiding consequences depends on one’s ability to pay and it “doesn’t work for poor people.”

“It pushes poor people further into poverty,” Harvey stated. “If you’re hanging on to the margins, and you get one of these warrants and you get locked up, how many people can afford to spend a couple days in jail without losing a job, especially if you’re working an entry-level job?” Harvey asked. Anyone living week-to-week would have their life seriously disrupted.

In Ferguson, there are about 21,000 residents. About 67% are black. Thirty-eight percent are white. Fourteen percent are unemployed. Twenty-two percent of residents live below the poverty level, including 35.3% of children under 18. Twenty-one percent received food stamps in the last year. (Note: Missouri’s overall rate of poverty in 2013 was 16.3%.)

There is a significant problem with access to legal representation. There are no public defenders in the municipal courts. Even if there were, chances are there would be no resources available to represent individuals. Missouri ranks 49th out of fifty states when it comes to funding for public defenders in the US.

Additionally, according to the report, “A Ferguson court employee reported that the bench routinely [started] hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then [locked] the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly late to receive an additional charge for failure to appear.”

A person could be in a situation, if they had children, where they may have to choose to fail to appear in court or appear in court, leave their kids somewhere else and risk being charged with child endangerment.

According to local judge Frank Vaterott, 37% of the courts responding to his survey unconstitutionally closed the courts to non-defendants. Defendants are then faced with the choice of leaving their kids on the parking lot or going into court. As Antonio Morgan described after being denied entry to the court with his children, the decision to leave his kids with a friend resulted in a charge of child endangerment.

Harvey said that the court-watching program was conducted to present findings like this to the municipal courts to force reforms. If nothing was done, the organization would have what was needed to pursue a lawsuit. The courts already have begun to open the courts to children, as they are legally obligated to do.

*

When ArchCity Defenders first started, it was just three law school classmates, who had graduated in 2009. They had no funding. They just knew that they identified a gap in services “between the public defender and legal services” in eastern Missouri and wanted to do something about it by helping those who needed representation in the municipal courts.

Thomas Harvey, one of the co-founders of the organization, told Firedoglake, “Our first cases were referrals from social workers who were trying to help homeless people get off the streets.

“We represented a [black] homeless veteran who had a substance abuse problem,” he added. He had been on the street for three years and came to St. Patrick’s Center, which provided him housing, treatment, job training and found him a job. But he could not get the job because he had a “warrant for his arrest stemming from unpaid traffic tickets in Jennings [suburb which neighbors Ferguson].”

ArchCity Defenders attorneys entered into the case, got his warrant removed and the next day the veteran was hired.

“He said to me,” Harvey recalled, “all the work I’ve been doing with St. Patrick’s Center and all the work I’ve been doing on my own wasn’t worth anything if you couldn’t get that warrant recalled.”

“It’s not hard to get a warrant recalled. It’s very easy for a lawyer. We did this small minor thing that had a major impact on his life, and that’s the first sign we had of how seriously these municipal courts’ ordinance violations and subsequent warrants for arrests and high fines were impacting people’s lives.”

Finally, Harvey stated, “I know that if Mike Brown had never met that officer on the street everything that we say in our report would still be true,” and, “When this case is over, everything we say in that report will still be true.”

If anyone wants to really prevent the same crisis or tragedy from happening again, the report represents much of what should be confronted and addressed in the aftermath.

CommunityFDL Main Blog

Ferguson’s Municipal Court System Makes Millions Off Targeting Black and Poor People

Community residents march on West Florissant Avenue, call for justice for Mike Brown

A small nonprofit organization, which provides “holistic legal advocacy” to poverty-stricken residents in St. Louis County, didn’t believe their clients when they claimed they were being incarcerated for not paying fines, targeted for being black and poor and denied access to municipal courts, particularly when they brought their children with them. The organization decided to conduct a “court watching” program and observed about 60 different courts. It produced a report that largely confirmed the allegations of clients.

In the aftermath of the killing of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the report [PDF] from ArchCity Defenders has been receiving attention for the critical context it provides.

“It is not uncommon for young black men to be shot by police officers in the United States of America,” declared Thomas Harvey, one of the organization’s co-founders. “Every time that happens there aren’t riots. So people were searching for explanation,” and, “I think our report gives some context to why there’s an additional level of frustration about the interaction between law enforcement and community.”

It highlights how fines issued by the Ferguson municipal court earned the small suburb of St. Louis $2.6 million in revenue in 2013. Ferguson was also one of three municipal courts in the county, which were chronic offenders when it came to violating the fundamental rights of the poor.

From the report:

…Many residents feel that the police and the courts target black residents and try to find something to fine them for. As one defendant said, “They’re searching to find something wrong. If you dig deep enough, you’ll always find dirt.” Another group of defendants waiting outside of a municipal court noted that there were no white individuals waiting with them. In fact, one said, “You go to all of these damn courts, and there’s no white people,” while another defendant even ticked off specific municipalities that he thinks engage in racial profiling. He said, “In Dellwood, Ferguson, basically in North County, if you’re black, they’re going to stop you…

According to statistics in the report, “86% of vehicle stops involved black motorists although blacks make up just 67% of population; by comparison, whites comprise 29% of the population of Ferguson but just 12.7% of vehicle stops.” Blacks stopped in Ferguson are nearly twice as likely as whites to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested, however, contraband is seized from whites more often than blacks.

On average, one household in Ferguson has 3 warrants. In 2013, the municipal court “disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,013 cases.”
(more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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