It's not just Ferguson.
At least six other St. Louis county municipalities impose the municipal court fines and fees that drew widespread criticism during Ferguson protests as unnecessarily predatory against poor and black residents. Now a team of lawyers has filed seven class-action lawsuits demanding that courts halt their rapacious fine structures and reimburse defendants in Ferguson, Beverly Hills, Fenton, Jennings, Pine Lawn, Wellston and Velda City.
Thomas Harvey, founder of the ArchCity Defenders, which provides legal services to the homeless and working poor, says there's no basis in state law for some of the fees some courts levy, such as a $50 fee to recall a warrant or a $15 fee for the letter alerting a defendant that he or she failed to appear in court.
"These fees have nothing to do with justice," Harvey tells Daily RFT. "We have to separate out the generation of revenue from the administration of justice."
Ferguson recently repealed its warrant recall fee and failure to appear letter fee, two fees Harvey says were designed to make money for cities, not to bolster public safety. But Harvey wants Ferguson -- and the other six municipalities named in the lawsuit -- to go even further and reimburse defendants who paid the fees to avoid jail time or warrants.
"They've wreaked havoc in people's lives," Harvey says of the fees. "They're a revenue source for the town, but they have a disproportionate impact on the people that are being asked to pay them."
Harvey points to the warrant recall fee, where a defendant must pay to have a warrant removed from their record. For Harvey's poor and homeless clients, a $50 fee is an "insurmountable" barrier to clearing the warrant and can prevent them from accessing housing and health services.
"The result for our region is that people remain homeless," Harvey says. "Fees don't help the public safety. They don't contribute to making the town safer. They're nothing but revenue generating."
St. Louis County municipal courts were thrust into the spotlight in August, when then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teen Michael Brown. Protesters who took to the streets in Ferguson said Brown's shooting was the ultimate expression of the for-profit, preying nature of the criminal justice system.
But these new lawsuits aren't limited to Ferguson or even to north county. One lawsuit takes aim at Fenton, a 96 percent white municipality that straddles the border between St. Louis County and Jefferson County.
Lawyers from the ArchCity Defenders, Saint Louis University Legal Clinics and private firm Campbell Law LLC, are joining together to take the seven cities -- and probably more in the future -- to court. The suits also include a claim under Missouri's consumer fraud statute saying cities deceived defendants to get them to pay fines.
"This is not simply about people who have violated the law and ought to face the consequences," Harvey says. "This is about the way the courts in these town make it impossible for otherwise law-abiding citizens to comply with the law."
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