Civil-rights lawyers are launching a new challenge to police practices in the beleaguered city of Ferguson, Mo.
In a lawsuit filed late Sunday night, lawyers from Equal Justice Under Law, ArchCity Defenders, and the Saint Louis University School of Law charge that city officials "have built a municipal scheme designed to brutalize, to punish, and to profit." It was also filed against the nearby town of Jennings, Mo.
The suit effectively claims that the cities have been operating debtor's prisons, something which was outlawed in the U.S. nearly 200 years ago.
The city of Ferguson has drawn considerable attention to this issue since the shooting of teenager Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in August made the small municipality the epicenter of social action aimed at reforming the way police interact with citizens.
A Fusion report from October found that there were more warrants than people in the city. Further, law enforcement has been accused of unfairly targeting and trapping people of color in a cycle of unpaid tickets and arrest warrants, which become almost unbearable for some low-income residents to escape. Often the inability to pay debts leads to prison time.
The municipal court fees at the root of this system are responsible for nearly 21 percent of the city's revenue—its second largest source of funding. Critics, and the newly filed lawsuit, claim that this system incentivizes the cities to issue tickets and to tack on as many additional fees as possible for those unable to immediately pay. (After it came under scrutiny, Ferguson capped court revenue at 15 percent of the city budget.)
Though this particular suit is filed against the cities of Ferguson and Jennings, lawyers say the issue is systemic.
“This is not a Ferguson issue," Michael Voss, co-founder of Arch City Defenders, one of the groups bringing the lawsuit, told Fusion in October. "This is all over the state.”
Indeed, it is an issue that is silently playing out across the nation.
Last year, an NPR investigative series about how states and municipalities profit from the court system found that:
- Since 2010, 48 states have increased criminal and civil court fees.
- Many courts are struggling to interpret a 1983 Supreme Court ruling protecting defendants from going to jail because they are too poor to pay their fines.
- Technology, such as electronic monitors, aimed at helping defendants avoid jail time is available only to those who can afford to pay for it.
The recent suit was filed on behalf of 11 plaintiffs who claim they were too poor to pay tickets and fines and were then jailed. Some spent two weeks or more in jail.
The city of Ferguson has taken steps to reform its court system since it came under scrutiny. Late last year, in addition to capping court revenue, the city “abolished the 'failure to appear' offense and related fines, [forgave] warrants for nearly 600 defendants, and eliminated fees to tow vehicles and revoke warrants," according to the Washington Post.
And in December, the "Missouri Supreme Court required local courts to allow installment plans, waive or reduce fines for the indigent, and hold “show cause” hearings before issuing warrants for failure to appear," the paper reported.
In an interview with the St. Louis Post Dispatch about the lawsuit, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said that he was confident in some of the reforms that the city has been undertaking, while adding that "profit was not a motive" for the city's court system.
"Absolutely not. As far as the application of fines, the setting of bails, etcetera, that’s not something determined in conjunction with city budget demands,” he said.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.