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A local public defender on the deeply dysfunctional Ferguson court system

Joe Raedle

Tensions between Ferguson residents and the city's police force go well beyond the Michael Brown shooting.

That's the argument that Thomas Harvey, executive director and co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, makes. His group represents low-income residents of St. Louis County in municipal court proceedings. And in a recent paper, Harvey and colleagues looked at how the Ferguson judicial system system regularly snowballs minor, unpaid fines like traffic tickets into arrest warrants and often jail time.

"Clients reported being jailed for the inability to pay fines, losing jobs and housing as result of the incarceration, being refused access to the Courts if they were with their children or other family members, and being mistreated by the bailiffs, prosecutors, clerks and judges in the courts," the report finds.

In Ferguson, court fees and fines are the second largest source of funds for the city; $2.6 million was collected in 2013 alone. That's become a key source of tension. There is a perception in the area, Harvey says, that the black population is targeted to pay those fines. Eighty-six percent of the traffic stops, for example, happen to black residents — even though the city is 67 percent black.

"I can't tell you what's going on in the mind of a police officer but, in the mind of my clients, they're being pulled over because they're black," Harvey says. "They're being pulled over so the city can generate revenue."

Harvey and I spoke Monday about how the municipal court system in Ferguson works, what it means to residents and how that relates to the ongoing protests.


Sarah Kliff: What kind of problems have you found with how the municipal courts in areas like Ferguson work?

Thomas Harvey: What we see is that the lowest level offenses can cause really significant problems for people. We're talking about homeless folks who cannot gain access to services they need because there's a warrant for their arrest. There are poor people who can't afford to pay their tickets and then they end up with a warrant and it's a black hole. They get their license suspended and to get it reinstated they have to pay fines on tickets that they couldn't pay in the first place.

This becomes a major issue: if you can't pay your fines, you stop going to court. And then a warrant goes out for their arrest, and if they don't  have the fine money they'll sit in jail until the next court date. We're talking about traffic tickets here, really the lowest level offense.

SK: Do you see ties between those interactions with authority and Ferguson, and the protests that have been happening after Mike Brown's death?

TH: Imagine if you're somebody who lives in Ferguson, who is poor. In the mind of my clients, they're being pulled over in order to create revenue for the city. They don't believe it's a public service. They believe it's about the money. For most of our clients, their contact with law enforcement comes through the municipal courts. These are poor people, they're driving to work and they're getting pulled over. And they believe it's because they're black and they're poor and the city is trying to generate revenue.

Whether the racial profiling is true, I don't know the intent of the officers pulling them over. But it's 100 percent true that is the impression that people have. I don't know what happened between Mike Brown and the police officer. Those two had never met but, before they did, all the problems I just described to you existed. And after this case is over, they will still be there. If we don't address these problems we're still going to vulnerable to other flash points like this.

There's a really fundamental distrust. I would never pretend like traffic tickets are the reason this is happening. But it is a factor. It's something that is happening in all the municipalities, and it contributes to the distrust. We hear from people who say, "I spent 25 days in jail for a traffic ticket." That happens.

SK: What type of things do your clients get pulled over for?

TH: It's always some initial moving violation, like speeding or rolling through a stop sign. Many will tell us, they feel that it's driving while black in their own community. Sometimes the police officer knows them, and knows the car wasn't registered the first time they were pulled over and goes through the whole thing again. They feel like they're being harassed and it creates this constant low level of stress.

We had one woman who was pulled over and charged with driving with a suspended license, failure to register and no proof of insurance. She was ticketed and assessed fines of $1,700. She couldn't pay that; she's a mother of three living in Section 8 housing. She didn't go to court, a warrant was issued for her failure to appear and a few months later she got into a car accident that wasn't her fault.

They saw that she had a warrant, and held her for two weeks and then took her in front of a judge. She told them I can't pay this money, so they reduced it to $700. For her, that might as well have been $700,000. What ended up happening was her mom borrowed against her life insurance policy and her sister gave her half her bi-weekly paycheck.

That was two weeks in jail for unpaid traffic tickets. And what the court learned from that, is that, if they send people to jail, they'll probably make money.

SK: Why does this system persist? Is it about generating revenue for the city, or something else?

TH: It's been in place for a long time, and I don't think it gets questioned. The most charitable reading is that the courts don't know the impact they're having on peoples' lives. For people like me this system works. If I got a traffic ticket I would pay $100 to a lawyer to represent me. I would get my speeding ticket turned into an excessive vehicle noise charge, pay a fine, the lawyer would get paid and the municipality too. It's the easiest transaction. But if you're poor, that system hurts you in ways they don't seem to have considered.

And if you look at Ferguson and Florissant, between those two municipalities they expect to net $4 million from these fines annually. That's no small amount for towns of 25,000 and 50,000. It's become a line in the budget and they're relying on it. That's the real crux of things. The courts are supposed to be the place where you administer justice, not rely on for revenue. That sense has been lost at some level in the community.