Encouraging Efficiency and Transparency
The expert testimony, research, scholarship, and lived experience collected by the Commission revealed the following:
- Court barriers to transparency include:records that are closed, that never existed, or that disappeared; inefficient and costly processes for gaining access to public records, sometimes requiring days or weeks; private electronic databases to which interested citizens lack access; and records that are maintained in forms that are difficult for individuals to access (Mann & Deere, 2015).
- One investigation into municipal court processes found “a pervasive lack of transparency. Court hearings are conducted in assembly-line fashion and in hushed tones, without any way for the public to learn what is happening with each case. Public records are sparse—viewing a single case file can often take days of waiting and require permission from a city attorney. Then there are the side deals, which are hidden but prolific. Even in court sessions that are theoretically open, judges often speak in whispers at the bench, making it impossible to hear exchanges with defendants who don’t have attorneys. It’s here where they quietly discuss what a person can pay and when.” (Mann & Deere, 2015).
- Regarding traffic cases, “[w]ith no hearing or public discussion, agreements get tucked away into individual case files, apparent only to those who know to look for them. The courts don’t keep a list of amended charges and aren’t required to report these deals to the state.” (Mann & Deere, 2015).
- One report by Radley Balko describes interviews with a Cool Valley resident who discovered a pending warrant for his arrest after he was stopped by a police officer (Balko, 2014). The warrant stemmed from a 20-year-old speeding ticket and came with $615 in late fees and fines. However, no one from the court offices could produce the original ticket, and an attorney could not use the individual’s record to find the warrant because Cool Valley does not use the designated legal database. Failure to use the designated legal database is not uncommon among municipalities (Balko, 2014).
- Balko also reported a St. Louis attorney stating, “I’ve asked prosecutors for a client’s file and they’ve flat turned me down. They’ll say ‘Here’s a list of his warrants, but we can’t show them to you. Just trust us.’ Or they’ll just staple a blank form to a manila envelope, write my client’s name on it, and call that his ‘file.’ They’re giving me the runaround, and I’m an attorney. So you can imagine what happens when people try to work within the system by themselves.” (Balko, 2014).
- Documented experiences of difficulty in gaining access to public records include:
- Post-Dispatch requests for documents from the St. Louis County area’s municipal courts were frequently met with silence and denials (Mann & Deere, 2015). Some municipal courts sent the requests to the Regional Justice Information Service (REJIS), which maintains a regional database of criminal information for about 50 municipal courts, for which the newspaper was charged. After nearly a month, the newspaper received the reports, several of which provided very little information (Mann & Deere, 2015).
- Another set of requests to the municipal courts was met by denials urged on by a prosecutor in Olivette who was also a city attorney in Pagedale and a judge in Edmundson (Mann & Deere, 2015). The responses to the requests insisted that municipal courts are not required to share the information requested and that the courts could keep their databases private, unlike state and federal courts (Mann & Deere, 2015).
These findings prompted the Commission to draft several calls to action for more robust recordkeeping standards and more transparent court procedures, with the goal of improving public trust in the municipal justice system.
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/2014/08/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
- Balko, R. (2014). How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty. Washington Post. Retrieved from:https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/09/03/how-st-louis-county-missouri-profits-from-poverty/
- Freivogel, W. (2014). Two visions of municipal court reform. St. Louis Public Radio. Retrieved from:http://news.stlpublicradio.org/post/two-visions-municipal-court-reform
- Lippmann, R. (2015). Despite Ferguson, change comes slowly to Mo. municipal courts. NPR. Retrieved from:http://www.npr.org/2015/02/08/384695759/change-comes-slowly-to-missouri-municipal-courts
- Mann, J. & Deere, S. (2015). Municipal courts operate in secret and work hard to keep it that way. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from:http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/municipal-courts-operate-in-secret-and-work-hard-to-keep/article_785bb87d-0b44-5d8f-a4e4-1de3ea38321a.html