'Crazy' St. Louis County Municipal Court System Fights To Survive

After Ferguson protests, lawsuits and public pressure are bringing change to a fractured and troubled network of tiny courts.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Missouri -- After a town near Ferguson agreed to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit this week by bringing sweeping reforms to its municipal court, local judges in St. Louis County announced a set of changes that could actually perpetuate the county's fractured judicial system and allow them to keep their part-time and well-compensated posts.

St. Louis County’s municipal court system, which has been troubled for decades, came under heavier scrutiny after the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last August. Residents subjected to the local courts described them as “out of control,” “inhumane,” “crazy,” “racist,” “unprofessional” and “sickening.”

In Ferguson and surrounding cities, municipal courts had no meaningful adversarial system, and city officials saw the courts as revenue generators rather than places of justice. Many municipalities in the region had more outstanding arrest warrants than they did residents, and some even issued warrants for missed court dates associated with tickets for grass that was too tall or pants that were too baggy.

Thousands upon thousands of citizens were caught up in a system they felt they could not escape, with many of them spending days hopping from jail to jail because they could not afford to purchase their freedom.

On Friday, changes to the municipal court system went into effect, brought on by a new law that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) signed in the wake of the Ferguson protests. State Sen. Eric Schmitt (R) pushed the legislation, which everyone from top law enforcement officials to the American Civil Liberties Union and tea partyers supported.

In a statement on Friday, Schmitt said the law will have an impact on “bloated bureaucracies” and will ensure that they serve, rather than “extort,” citizens. The bill sets certain standards for municipalities and places a cap on the percentage of revenue that cities can bring in from traffic tickets. Residents can vote to disincorporate from any municipality that fails to turn over its excess revenue to the state. Those jurisdictions would instead become part of the county -- which may actually be the best option for tiny cities that can't afford to finance their own separate governments without excessive ticketing.

A day before the law went into effect, a group of legal defense groups, followed by a group of municipal judges, laid out two distinct visions of what the future of St. Louis County's municipal court system could look like.

Jennings, a municipality of around 14,000 people near Ferguson, provides one model for the reforms to the county's municipal court system. When reporters from The Huffington Post visited Jennings Municipal Court last year, nearly every person waiting to pay their fine was black, while the court officials were nearly universally white. Our interviews with defendants in Jennings Municipal Court can be seen in the video above.

Those able to pay off their fines -- in installments of $100 or more per month -- did not have to show up to court. Defendants who could afford the largest payments spent the least time in court, while those who couldn’t afford to pay anything sat in court for hours. If people who couldn't make the payments didn't physically show up on a particular night each month, authorities would issue a warrant for their arrest.

Charles Anthony Chatman Jr., who was 24, allegedly killed himself inside the Jennings City Jail in 2013. DeJuan Brison, 26, allegedly hung himself inside the jail in 2014. It's not clear if the men missed a payment or a court date, but authorities were holding both Chatman and Brison until they put up money for bail, which is supposed to simply guarantee a future court appearance.

Members of the Missouri National Guard stand outside the Ferguson Police Department and the Municipal Court in Ferguson, Miss
Members of the Missouri National Guard stand outside the Ferguson Police Department and the Municipal Court in Ferguson, Missouri.

Jennings and Ferguson were both sued in federal court earlier this year. ArchCity Defenders, Equal Justice Under Law and Saint Louis University School of Law brought the lawsuit on behalf of people who were locked up in what they say amounted to a debtor's prison, and Jennings eventually settled.

The agreement Jennings reached in its settlement essentially eliminates fixed cash bail systems, meaning the city can't lock up poor people for days simply because they can't afford to give the government money. Also, Jennings can no longer impose additional fees on individuals who participate in payment plans. And those unable to pay city fines will have the option of performing community service at a fixed rate of at least $10 per hour. 

Hours after the groups that filed the lawsuit announced the agreement on Thursday, a group of municipal court judges held a press conference to broadcast changes that dozens of other St. Louis County cities have promised to implement. Over 80 courts agreed to carry out some reforms, like eliminating failure to appear charges and ending license suspensions. They are also working to change their unconstitutional fixed cash bail systems, which Jennings has already eliminated.

But even this announcement illustrates some of the problems with the municipal court system: officials couldn't say which courts would adopt which reforms, and to what extent.

St. Louis County recently received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to help develop a plan to reduce its jail population -- which pretty much everyone agrees is a problem. But even while acknowledging that many critics of the municipal courts had valid points, the judges also made clear that the current system of tiny courts and excessive ticketing isn't going down without a fight.

“I can’t tell you how many times people thanked me,” said Frank Vatterott, the municipal court judge overseeing the changes. “The neighbors come to court because there’s a kid running up and down the street going 80 miles an hour, scaring the heck out of the kids and their mothers, and they can’t play outside; a guy that plays his radio so loud that nobody in the neighborhood can sleep; the guy who doesn’t cut his grass and his yard is like a manger. Who’s going to take care of those? We take care of those. Now, they’re not axe murderers. They’re not real sexy things, but we take care of those."

Protesters gather outside the Pine Lawn Police Department in Missouri.
Protesters gather outside the Pine Lawn Police Department in Missouri.

While the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police organization that studied St. Louis County policing, was shocked by the predatory ticketing practices it found, those "who want us to shut down completely because of the abuses of some courts" are wrong, said Vatterott. He mentioned several cities that had "good courts." But in the cities Vatterott mentioned -- Kirkwood, Shrewsberry and Maryland Heights -- there is a major racial disparity in rates of police vehicle stops, according to a 2014 report from the Missouri Attorney General. Kirkwood is 89 percent white and 7 percent black, Shrewsberry is 90 percent white and 3.6 percent black, and Maryland Heights is 73 percent white and 11.9 percent black. Yet all three cities are much more likely to stop black drivers than white drivers.

“Warrants are still a part of our law, and will be issued for people who do not show up,” said Michael Gunn, who serves as municipal court judge in Manchester. “We’re not saying here that the concept of warrants has been abolished in St. Louis County, it hasn’t been, nor do any of the citizens here want it to be. Everybody wants this; in effect, they want to say people who don’t show up have got to be forced to show up.”

“If you talk to all the political people around, all the people in the neighborhoods, they say ‘Hey, listen, we don’t want this to go unanswered. We want you to be able to have some teeth to make sure these people answer. The warrants are going to stay,” Gunn said.

Vatterott said some courts "clearly needed major reform," but added that "most of our courts were fine." He said the municipal court judges were "not here to preserve our courts," and said it was up to the people to decide whether to maintain the current system. 

A line outside of municipal court in Kinloch, a town near Ferguson.
A line outside of municipal court in Kinloch, a town near Ferguson.

"We’re here to perform justice on these minor matters that people are involved in," he said. "People will take advantage of our forgiveness here -- it’s going to happen. We know that other people take credit for it. We know that people will still condemn us. None of that matters to us. What matters is that were making a statement to get the trust back that we deserve in the third branch of government, which is our courts.”

Yet advocates for justice reform in St. Louis County have received this message with skepticism. The announcement is really about self-preservation and amounts to a public relations campaign, said Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders, an organization that works with poor clients in St. Louis County's municipal court system and helped bring the lawsuit against Jennings and Ferguson. Voluntary and unmonitored policies in separate, essentially unsupervised courts are not enough, he and other advocates argue.

“When players in the system like Judge Frank Vatterott say, ‘People thank us for having municipal courts,’ we have to ask the question, 'What does he mean by people?'" Harvey said in an interview.

"Because not a single client I have ever represented -- not a single poor person, not a single homeless person, not a single African-American person in the region I have ever represented, in the thousands of people that we’ve represented in municipal courts in the past five years -- has ever said ‘Thank God the municipal court system exists.’ In fact, quite the opposite,” he added.

“The municipal court system has literally destroyed their lives,” Harvey continued. “Locked them in jail for being poor, mocked them for being poor while they’re in jail, caused them to lose jobs, caused them to lose housing. It’s astonishing to me to hear someone so intimately involved in the system defend it in a way that seems to indicate a real separation from the people whose lives are directly impacted by that system.”

A protester outside of a municipal court in St. Louis County.
A protester outside of a municipal court in St. Louis County.

Harvey said that many courts would simply disappear if local authorities operated them the way they should -- because then, they wouldn’t make money anymore.

“Courts are not about making money, they’re about the administration of justice. That’s been our goal all along: to have a just and fair legal system that works for poor people, not just middle class white folks, in St. Louis County,” Harvey said. 

Harvey said that “virtually every town in this region” has an example of overpolicing and unconstitutional practices. “The only difference between the various towns in this region is the degree to which those violations occur,” he said. “I think it’s an indication of how disconnected the people who run this system are from the lives of the people that the system impacts.”

Simply getting rid of the warrants, Harvey said, isn’t enough. Instead, judges should forgive the fines and dismiss the cases.

James Clark, vice president of community outreach for the organization Better Family Life, said that the municipal court system in St. Louis County is so much a part of life that people believe it is normal.

“When I first got my license, I got pulled over and I just thought it was natural. I didn’t view it as us being prey. It was just young people making foolish mistakes. But when we went to court, we were like, ‘Man, it ain’t nothing but black people in here,'” Clark said. 

“The reality is this: Had Mike Brown not been killed and the Department of Justice not come in, nobody in St. Louis would have given a damn."

Ryan J. Reilly reported from Washington; Mariah Stewart reported from St. Louis County.