Protecting Rights and Effectively Administering Courts
The expert testimony, research, scholarship, and lived experience collected by the Commission revealed the following:
- According to a report on the municipal courts in the St. Louis region and community members’ experience within them, “family members were forced to wait outside courtrooms while loved-ones represent[ed] themselves in front of a judge and a prosecutor. Many recounted being mistreated by the bailiffs, city prosecutors, court clerks, and even some judges.” (ArchCity Defenders, 2014).
- On average, a Missouri circuit court judge oversees about 8.6 municipal courts (Better Together, 2014). However, with 81 municipal courts, the St. Louis County Circuit Court judge is responsible for about ten times that amount (Better Together, 2014). The intended oversight by the presiding circuit court judge becomes nearly impossible in this situation (Better Together, 2014).
- ArchCity Defenders has reported that people who have been arrested on a warrant for failing to appear in court to pay fines, even for non-violent offenses, sometimes sit in jail for extended periods of time (ArchCity Defenders, 2014). Since municipal courts do not hold court on a daily basis, and some only meet once a month, “a person arrested on a warrant in one of these jurisdictions and who cannot pay the bond may spend as much as three weeks in jail waiting to see a judge” (ArchCity Defenders, 2014). Their report also revealed that “poor minorities are pulled over more frequently, they are let go without a ticket less frequently, and they are in all likelihood the only group to see the inside of a jail cell for minor ordinance violations” (ArchCity Defenders, 2014).
- Effective as of August 28, 2015, Missouri Statute 479.360 further states:“Defendants in custody pursuant to an initial arrest warrant issued by a municipal court have an opportunity to be heard by a judge in person, by telephone, or video conferencing as soon as practicable and not later than forty-eight hours on minor traffic violations and not later than seventy-two hours on other violations and, if not given that opportunity, are released” (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 479.360.1(1)).
- ArchCity Defenders has reported that “defendants are entitled to a hearing to determine their ability to pay under Missouri law. Upon revocation of probation for failing to pay, defendants are again entitled to an inquiry into their ability to pay. Based on our observations, these hearings rarely occur.” (ArchCity Defenders, 2014).
- On August 28, 2015, Missouri Statute 479.360 became effective. It states, in relevant part, that municipal courts must “[establish] procedures to allow indigent defendants to present evidence of their financial condition and [take] such evidence into account if determining fines and costs and establishing related payment requirements” (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 479.360.1(4)).
- Plaintiffs’ attorneys in Fant v. Ferguson, a class action lawsuit suing the City of Ferguson regarding allegedly unconstitutional municipal court practices, argued that jailing individuals for inability to pay is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses (Fant v. City of Ferguson, 2015).
- Missouri Statute 479.360 further states:“Defendants are not detained in order to coerce payment of fines and costs” (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 479.360.1(3)).
- The Class Action Complaint in Fant v. City of Ferguson describes situations in which individuals have been incarcerated in Ferguson jail for inability to pay traffic tickets or other minor fines and fees (Fant v. City of Ferguson, 2015). According to the Complaint, individuals “are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood; they are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean underwear; they step on top of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a single shared toilet that the City does not clean; they develop untreated illnesses and infections in open wounds that spread to other inmates; they endure days and weeks without being allowed to use the moldy shower; their filthy bodies huddle in cold temperatures with a single thin blanket even as they beg guards for warm blankets; they are not given adequate hygiene products for menstruation; they are routinely denied vital medical care and prescription medication, even when their families beg to be allowed to bring medication to the jail; they are provided food so insufficient and lacking in nutrition that inmates lose significant amounts of weight; they suffer from dehydration out of fear of drinking foul smelling water that comes from an apparatus on top of the toilet; and they must listen to the screams of other inmates languishing from unattended medical issues as they sit in their cells without access to books, legal materials, television, or natural light” (Fant v. City of Ferguson, 2015).
- Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that “[t]he jail conditions created and perpetuated by the City of Ferguson would be unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment even were convicted prisoners treated with such callous disregard to basic health and safety.” (Fant v. City of Ferguson, 2015).
These findings prompted the Commission to draft several calls to action for administrative changes that contribute to the protection of citizen’s constitutional rights.
To that end, the Commission issues the calls to action below.
Suggested Reading List
ArchCity Defenders. (2014). Municipal courts white paper. Retrieved from:http://03a5010.netsolhost.com/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/ArchCity-Defenders-Municipal-Courts-Whitepaper.pdf
Department of Justice (DOJ). (2015). Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. United States Department of Justice. Retrieved from:http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf
- ArchCity Defenders. (2014). Municipal courts white paper. Retrieved from:http://03a5010.netsolhost.com/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/ArchCity-Defenders-Municipal-Courts-Whitepaper.pdf
- ArchCity Defenders. (2015). It’s not just Ferguson:Missouri Supreme Court should consolidate the municipal court system. Retrieved from:http://www.archcitydefenders.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Its-Not-Just-Ferguson-Consolidate-the-Municipal-Courts.pdf
- Better Together. (2014). Public safety – Municipal courts. Retrieved from:http://www.bettertogetherstl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/BT-Municipal-Courts-Report-Full-Report1.pdf
- Fant v. The City of Ferguson, 4:15-cv-253. (2015). Class action complaint. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division. Retrieved from:http://equaljusticeunderlaw.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Complaint-Ferguson-Debtors-Prison-FILE-STAMPED.pdf
- Hampel, P. (2015). Lawsuits call Ferguson, Jennings jails debtors’ prisons. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from:http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/lawsuits-call-ferguson-jennings-jails-debtors-prisons/article_a4360994-f557-5ae9-8080-8840e2724891.html
- Missouri Revised Statutes, title 32, chapter 479, section 360 (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 479.360). (2015). Retrieved from:http://www.senate.mo.gov/15info/pdf-bill/tat/SB5.pdf