7 Curious Facts About The Ferguson Municipal Judge

Ronald Brockmeyer wears many hats — criminal defense attorney, local prosecutor, and municipal judge in a town called Ferguson. Here's a look at how that has played out.

This is Ronald Brockmeyer, an attorney from St. Louis, Missouri, who specializes in divorces and criminal defense. He also serves as municipal judge in Ferguson.

1. He works as judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney — at the same time.

There are more than 90 municipalities in the St. Louis area. Many of them have their own courts, where cases pertaining to violations of city ordinances can be tried.

Unlike larger halls of justice, municipal courts rarely employ full-time judges or prosecutors. Instead, the city courts — which are part of the town's police departments — hire local attorneys to serve as judges and prosecutors part-time, paying them per session.

One of the consequences of this system is that the same lawyers often wear several hats, opening the door to all kinds of conflicts of interest and abuse, according to Tony Rothert, the president of St. Louis branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"In these courts, the people who are the defense attorneys, the judges, and the prosecutors are the same people," Rothert told BuzzFeed News. "It's not uncommon for one person to be the prosecutor in one city, and a judge in the next town over."

Brockmeyer, for one, serves as judge in Ferguson and Breckenridge Hills and as prosecutor in Florissant, Vinita Park, and Dellwood, KSDK reported. He reportedly charges $600 per session.

If the reasons why Brockmeyer's multiple appointments make local civil rights groups uneasy are unclear, imagine what would happen if the Manhattan District Attorney was the judge in a court in Queens and had a criminal defense practice in Brooklyn.

Brockmeyer didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. In the past, he has said that he doesn't believe his multiple part-time gigs constitute a conflict of interest, and that his ability to "see both sides of it" makes the municipal court system "even better."

2. As judge, he turned his court into a revenue-raising machine, according to the Department of Justice.

In the wake of the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown last year, the DOJ and other agencies performed a wide-ranging investigation of Ferguson's criminal justice system. The resulting report is a harsh indictment of the city government.

The DOJ investigators also had some choice things to say about Brockmeyer:

The City has made clear to the Police Chief and the Municipal Judge that revenue generation must also be a priority in court operations.

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. These include a $50 fee charged each time a person has a pending municipal arrest warrant cleared, and a "failure to appear fine," which the Judge noted is "increased each time the Defendant fails to appear in court or pay a fine."

The Judge also noted increasing fines for repeat offenders, "especially in regard to housing violations, [which] have increased substantially and will continue to be increased upon subsequent violations."

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."

A criminal defense attorney who works in the St. Louis area and asked not to be identified because he sometimes has to work in the same courts as Brockmeyer said such practices were not limited to Ferguson.

"On two occasions I actually presided as a judge in another town, in cases when the judge didn't show up or had a conflict," the attorney told BuzzFeed News. "And I'll tell you, I think that I was too lenient, I didn't collect enough revenue, because they never called me again."

3. Brockmeyer issued arrest warrants when people did not show up to pay their fines at the appointed time.

Debtors' prisons — or places where people are detained simply because they cannot pay what they owe — are illegal in the United States. Brockmeyer told the DOJ that he has never imprisoned anyone for being unable to pay a fine.

But federal investigators found that the town's practice of issuing arrest warrants when people did not appear in court to pay small fines for violations, such as "dog creating nuisance" and "overgrown vegetation," resulted in many of them spending time behind bars:

While issuing municipal warrants against people who have not appeared or paid their municipal code violation fines is sometimes framed as addressing the failure to abide by court rules, in practice, it is clear that warrants are primarily issued to coerce payment.

One municipal judge from a neighboring municipality told us that the use of the Failure to Appear charge "provides cushion for judges against the attack that the court is operating as a debtor's prison."

The St. Louis criminal defense attorney told BuzzFeed News that the findings of the DOJ report did not surprise him.

"One of the really horrible things is the amount of time that people can spend in jail because they failed to pay some fine somewhere," the attorney said. "Maybe they owe money in two different jurisdictions, and they can sit for jail for days, and they wait for their case in one town to be resolved, then they get transported for another town."

4. Brockmeyer, meanwhile, owes the federal government $170,000.

Public records show that Brockmeyer owes the Internal Revenue Service some $170,000 in back personal income taxes, the Guardian reported.

5. But he somehow managed to own half a million dollars wroth of real property and several business besides his law firm.

Public records show that Brockmeyer owes his home in St. Charles, Missouri. Its assessed value is nearly $300,000. He also owns the offices of his law firm — which was assessed at $215,000.

Besides his law-firm, public records show that Brockmeyer is the owner or agent of the following businesses: Hammer Sons Inc, Select Slate & Tile, Platinum Sports & Entertainment Management LLC, Prestigious Properties LLC, A Howling Good Time! LLC, First Capitol News LC.

6. Brockmeyer may have also presided over cases in which he had no jurisdiction.

The court system in the St. Louis metropolitan area is labyrinthine, to say the least. Besides the usual state and federal courts, the area is covered by county and municipal court systems.

As a result, it's often hard to tell which court should hear a particular case. But municipal courts have a monetary interest in hearing as many as possible so they can charge more fines and generate more revenue.

"If you violate a state law, the municipal court has no legislation, it only has jurisdiction over ordinance," the ACLU's Rothert told BuzzFeed News. "But if you are speeding, for example, cops can decide to charge you with an ordinance violation so the money goes to the municipality, even though there is also a state statute forbidding speeding.

"On paper, the state court has oversight over the municipal court, and you can appeal their decisions, but in practice, only people with money can afford that because you need a lawyer."

Brockmeyer has been sued in federal court at least once for hearing cases that he shouldn't have heard. Scott Koster, a resident of the St. Louis area who is currently serving a prison sentence, filed a civil lawsuit against the judge in U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri in 2013.

The lawsuit has since been dismissed, but it highlights some interesting problems that arise when there are several courts that could potentially hear the same case — and when one of those courts is more interested in raising money than in serving justice.

Koster alleged that he was convicted and sentenced twice for the same offense: Driving while intoxicated. He pleaded guilty in Brockmeyer's court in exchange for time served and a small fee for court costs — and then he was sentenced to 11 years for chronic DWI, driving without a license, and leaving the scene of an accident.

Koster's case is extreme, but an attorney who practices in the area told BuzzFeed News that such jurisdictional confusion is common.

"I've been a criminal defense attorney in this area for 20 years and I have not been able to figure out what are the criteria to decide whether a DWI charge gets tried in a municipal court or in a state court," said the attorney, who also asked not to be named.

7. And, finally, Brockmeyer allegedly helped his friends get rid of tickets.

The DOJ report found that Brockmeyer routinely wrote off tickets for his friends — the same kind of tickets for which he allegedly imprisoned poor, black people. Here are three examples, all taken straight from the report:

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.

In October 2013, Judge Brockmeyer sent Ferguson's Prosecuting Attorney an email with the subject line "City of Hazelwood vs. Ronald Brockmeyer."

The Judge wrote: "Pursuant to our conversation, attached please find the red light camera ticket received by the undersigned. I would appreciate it if you would please see to it that this ticket is dismissed."

The Prosecuting Attorney, who also serves as prosecuting attorney in Hazelwood, responded: "I worked on red light matters today and dismissed the ticket that you sent over. Since I entered that into the system today, you may or may not get a second notice – you can just ignore that."

The ACLU's Rothert told BuzzFeed News that the attorneys who serve as prosecutors and judges in the St. Louis municipalities usually know each other, and can easily help their clients reach deals in which the charge gets lowered or dropped in exchange for a higher fine.

"There is a common scheme in the municipalities that when there is a defense attorney, people pay a higher fine and your charges get changed, so if you get charged with a DWI, your fine is moved to improper parking and you pay a higher fine," Rothert said.

The federal investigators took this as evidence of Brockmeyer's "lack of personal responsibility:"

The common practice among Ferguson officials of writing off tickets further evidences a double standard grounded in racial stereotyping.

Even as Ferguson City officials maintain the harmful stereotype that black individuals lack personal responsibility—and continue to cite this lack of personal responsibility as the cause of the disparate impact of Ferguson's practices — white City officials condone a striking lack of personal responsibility among themselves and their friends.

Court records and emails show City officials, including the Municipal Judge, the Court Clerk, and FPD supervisors assisting friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and themselves in eliminating citations, fines, and fees.

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