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This Is What It's Like To Go To Court In Ferguson, Missouri

Hint: It can be a convoluted and expensive process in a city where, according to the Department of Justice, officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for law enforcement.

Posted on March 4, 2015, at 7:37 p.m. ET

The entrance to the Ferguson Police Department on Wednesday.
Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

The entrance to the Ferguson Police Department on Wednesday.

According to the Department of Justice, officials in Ferguson, Missouri, "have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority" for law enforcement.

Ferguson draws a significant amount of revenue from fines and fees for municipal violations, the DOJ reported.

Of the $11.07 million in general fund revenue the City collected in fiscal year 2010, $1.38 million came from fines and fees collected by the court; similarly, in fiscal year 2011, the City's general fund revenue of $11.44 million included $1.41 million from fines and fees.

So what kind of things do people get citations for?

Just about anything.

[O]ur investigation found instances in which the court charged $302 for a single Manner of Walking violation; $427 for a single Peace Disturbance violation; $531 for High Grass and Weeds; $777 for Resisting Arrest; and $792 for Failure to Obey, and $527 for Failure to Comply, which officers appear to use interchangeably.

Sounds like it's really easy to get in trouble.

That's the idea. The municipal judge in Ferguson, Ronald Brockmeyer, was praised by city officials for coming up with new ways to make money through fees.

The Finance Director's February 2011 report to the City Council notes that "Judge Brockmeyer was first appointed in 2003, and during this time has been successful in significantly increasing court collections over the years."

The report includes a list of "what he has done to help in the areas of court efficiency and revenue."

The list, drafted by Judge Brockmeyer, approvingly highlights the creation of additional fees, many of which are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful, including several that the City has repealed during the pendency of our investigation.

Should a judge be doing that?

No, the Department of Justice concludes that "the influence of revenue on the court" may "be unlawful." But the city officials thought he was good for the bottom line.

In 2012, a Ferguson City Councilmember wrote to other City officials in opposition to Judge Brockmeyer's reappointment, stating that "[the Judge] does not listen to the testimony, does not review the reports or the criminal history of defendants, and doesn't let all the pertinent witnesses testify before rendering a verdict."

The Councilmember then addressed the concern that "switching judges would/could lead to loss of revenue," arguing that even if such a switch did "lead to a slight loss, I think it's more important that cases are being handled properly and fairly."

The City Manager acknowledged mixed reviews of the Judge's work but urged that the Judge be reappointed, noting that "[i]t goes without saying the City cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our Courts, nor experience any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures."

OK, well I've got a citation. What do I do?

Are you friends with anyone who works for the municipal government? If so just tell your friend to hook you up.

In November 2011, a court clerk received a request from a friend to "fix a parking ticket" received by the friend's coworker's wife. After the ticket was faxed to the clerk, she replied: "It's gone baby!"

In August 2014, the Court Clerk emailed Municipal Judge Brockmeyer a copy of a Failure to Appear notice for a speeding violation issued by the City of Breckenridge, and asked: "[FPD patrol supervisor] came to me this morning, could you please take [care] of this for him in Breckenridge?"

The Judge replied: "Sure."

Judge Brockmeyer also serves as Municipal Judge in Breckenridge.

But I don't have friends in the government.

OK, well then you'll probably have to pay it. Are you black or white?

Why does that matter?

Well if you're black, you're more likely to get a citation, more likely to have that citation lead to an arrest, and more likely to end up with multiple citations for one municipal violation.

Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson's population.

African Americans are 68% less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by the court, and are more likely to have their cases last longer and result in more required court encounters. African Americans are at least 50% more likely to have their cases lead to an arrest warrant, and accounted for 92% of cases in which an arrest warrant was issued by the Ferguson Municipal Court in 2013.

In 2013, for instance, more than 50% of all African Americans cited received multiple citations during a single encounter with FPD, whereas only 26% of non-African Americans did. Specifically, 26% of African Americans receiving a citation received two citations at once, whereas only 17% of white individuals received two citations at once.

Ok so I've got a citation. What do I do?

Can't help you.

It is often difficult for an individual who receives a municipal citation or summons in Ferguson to know how much is owed, where and how to pay the ticket, what the options for payment are, what rights the individual has, and what the consequences are for various actions or oversights.

They don't tell you how to pay the citation?

Sometimes they leave important stuff out.

And many times, FPD officers omit critical information from the citation, which makes it impossible for a person to determine the specific nature of the offense charged, the amount of the fine owed, or whether a court appearance is required or some alternative method of payment is available.

How much am I gonna owe?

Probably not what's on the ticket.

Similarly, while the municipal court does not have any authority to impose a fine of over $1,000 for any offense, it is not uncommon for individuals to pay more than this amount to the City of Ferguson β€” in forfeited bond payments, additional Failure to Appear charges, and added court fees β€” for what may have begun as a simple code violation.

Well how do I pay for it?

You have to show up between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. But people won't necessarily be there when you get there.

Even when the court window is technically open, we have seen people standing at the window waiting for a response to their knocks for long periods of time, sometimes in inclement weather β€” even as court staff sat inside the police department tending to their normal duties.

No big deal I'll just come back later.

Bad idea. Until recently, if you don't show up, you could be cited for "failure to appear" and end up with a warrant being issued for your arrest. And not showing up was a big moneymaker for the town.

Since at least 2010, the court has collected more revenue for Failure to Appear charges than for any other charge. This includes $442,901 in fines for Failure to Appear violations in 2013, which comprised 24% of the total revenue the court collected that year...

Once issued, arrest warrants can, and frequently do, lead to arrest and time in jail, despite the fact that the underlying offense did not result in a penalty of imprisonment.

Ferguson recently stopped the practice, but surrounding municipalities still jail people for "failure to appear."

OK, but I may not be able to pay all that at once.

You don't necessarily have to, but don't miss a payment.

Ferguson's practice of automatically treating a missed payment as a failure to appear β€” thus triggering an arrest warrant and possible incarceration β€” is directly at odds with well-established law that prohibits "punishing a person for his poverty."

Yikes. How do I know if I have an outstanding warrant?

You might not. They're supposed to send a letter, but you know, things happen.

Even where a letter is sent, some are returned to court, and court staff told us that in those cases, they make no additional effort to notify the individual of the new court date or the consequences of nonappearance.

I don't understand how they can do that.

Look, sending those letters costs money.

In the past, when the court issued a warrant it would also send notice to the individual that a warrant was issued against them and telling them to appear at the police department to resolve the matter. This notice did not provide the basis of the arrest warrant or describe how it might be resolved.

In any case, Ferguson stopped providing even this incomplete notice in 2012. In explaining the decision to stop sending this warrant notice, the Court Clerk wrote in a June 2011 email to Chief Jackson that "this will save the cost of warrant cards and postage" and "it is not necessary to send out these cards."

Oh man. If I have an outstanding warrant does that mean I'm getting arrested?

Depends. Are you "ignorant?"

City officials have told us that the decision to arrest a person for an outstanding warrant is "highly discretionary" and that officers will frequently not arrest unless the person is "ignorant."

Wait a second...

Yeaaaaaah I'm just gonna leave this here.

Available data show that, of those actually arrested by FPD only because of an outstanding municipal warrant, 96% are African American.

Wow.

Keep in mind Ferguson is only 67% black.

I think I need a lawyer.

Good luck. Take this story relayed to federal investigators.

The man retained counsel who, during trial, was repeatedly interrupted by the court during his cross-examination of the officer.

When the attorney objected to the interruptions, the judge told him that, if he continued on this path, "I will hold you in contempt and I will incarcerate you," which, as discussed below, the court has done in the past to others appearing before it.

The attorney told us that, believing no line of questioning would alter the outcome, he tempered his defense so as not to be jailed.

That's nuts.

You think that's nuts? It turns out the cop in that case was lying.

Notably, at that trial, even though the testifying officer had previously been found untruthful during an official FPD investigation, the prosecuting attorney presented his testimony without informing defendant of that fact, and the court credited that testimony.

What happens if I can't pay?

You're probably going to jail.

As a result, there have been many cases in which a person has been arrested on a warrant, detained for 72 hours or more, and released owing the same amount as before the arrest was made. Court records do not even track the total amount of time a person has spent in jail as part of a case.

When asked why this is not tracked, a member of court staff told us: "It's only three days anyway."

Is it legal to lock people up for being broke?

Technically, no, in practice, yes.

If I have to go to jail, can someone post bond for me?

Yes, but they probably won't get that money back. And they won't apply it to the money you owe.

In light of the fact that applicable law permits forfeited bonds to be applied to pending fines, Ferguson's longstanding practice of directing forfeited bond money to the City's general fund is troubling. In fiscal year 2013 alone, the City collected forfeited bond amounts of $177,168, which could instead have been applied to the fines of those making the payments.

I can't imagine what it's like to get caught up in this.

Let me help. Here are a few examples, as told to investigators:

One woman...received two parking tickets for a single violation in 2007 that then totaled $151 plus fees. Over seven years later, she still owed Ferguson $541β€”after already paying $550 in fines and fees, having multiple arrest warrants issued against her, and being arrested and jailed on several occasions.

According to the report, that woman "experienced financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years."

That's awful.

Wait, there's more.

Another woman told us that when she went to court to try to pay $100 on a $600 outstanding balance, the Court Clerk refused to take the partial payment, even though the woman explained that she was a single mother and could not afford to pay more that month.

Then there's this one:

A 90-year old man had a warrant issued for his arrest after he failed to timely pay the five citations FPD issued to him during a single traffic stop in 2013. An 83-year-old man had a warrant issued against him when he failed to timely resolve his Derelict Auto violation.

Ok I get it.

But do you?

A 67-year-old woman told us she was stopped and arrested by a Ferguson police officer for an outstanding warrant for failure to pay a trash-removal citation. She did not know about the warrant until her arrest, and the court ultimately charged her $1,000 in fines, which she continues to pay off in $100 monthly increments despite being on a limited, fixed income.

This sounds more like a money-making scheme than a court system.

It's both, actually.

City officials have consistently set maximizing revenue as the priority for Ferguson's law enforcement activity...City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget...Court staff are keenly aware that the City considers revenue generation to be the municipal court's primary purpose.

That's terrible.

Yeah well, they're not alone. Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that "surrounding municipalities" engage in similar practices.

Is anyone going to do anything about this?

Holder said that the Department of Justice would work with Ferguson and other communities in the area to "reform their law enforcement practices and establish a public safety effort that protects and serves all members of the community."

Will that...change anything?

Your guess is as good as mine.

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