Increasing Awareness of Rights and Procedures
The expert testimony, research, scholarship, and lived experience collected by the Commission revealed the following:
- Individuals who receive a municipal citation or summons in many St. Louis County municipalities often are not provided with essential facts critical to navigating the judicial process. The procedures used in Ferguson, MO are an example of this problem:The Department of Justice found that individuals receiving a municipal citation or summons often are unaware of how much they owe, where and how to pay the ticket, what the different payment options are, what rights the individual has in the process, and what the consequences are for various actions or oversights. The communication that happens between courts and defendants is “haphazard and known by the court to be unreliable”—often delivered by judges verbally on an ad hoc basis and/or inaccurately and incompletely on municipal websites (DOJ, 2015).
- The DOJ further found that “[m]any times…[Ferguson Police Department] 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. In some cases, citations fail to indicate the offense charged altogether. . . . In other cases, a ticket will indicate a charge but omit other crucial information” (DOJ, 2015).
- Court staff often do not follow official procedures to notify a defendant with a missed court date of a new court date, or that missing the next court date will result in issuing an arrest warrant (DOJ, 2015).
- Individuals against whom an arrest warrant has been issued can clear the warrant by paying a bond at the court window. However, individuals can avail themselves of this option only if they know that a warrant has been issued and if the payment option has been communicated to them, neither of which is a guaranteed to happen (DOJ, 2015).
- The DOJ found that “a lack of transparency regarding rights and responsibilities” and “basic access deficiencies that frustrate a person’s ability to resolve even those charges that do not require in-court appearance” are two of five factors that “impose considerable hardship.” As a result, individuals often appear in court multiple times—sometimes more than ten occasions— attempting to resolve one case. Throughout this process, the individual will likely be assessed additional fines, fees, or have arrest warrants issued against them (DOJ, 2015).
- In the ArchCity Defenders observation of over sixty courts, they found that “in all but very few, these municipalities fail to provide lawyers for those who cannot afford counsel. As a result, unrepresented defendants often enter pleas of guilty without knowing they have the right to consult a lawyer, although this information is on many court websites” (ArchCity Defenders, 2014).
These findings prompted the Commission to draft several calls to action for changes in ticketing practices, municipal court practices, notice procedures, and processes to appoint counsel, with the aim to increase individual’s awareness of their own rights and of municipal court processes. This increased awareness will, in turn, stop an individual’s single citation from escalating into an ever-increasing number of court dates and fines and fees.
To that end, the Commission issues the calls to action below.
Suggested Reading List
- Freivogel, W. (2014). Two visions of municipal court reform. STL 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
- Weich, S. (2014). Municipal court judges in St. Louis county are told to open doors. St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved from:http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/municipal-court-judges-in-st-louis-county-are-told-to/article_e965d081-758d-500a-abb7-a054916edad2.html
- ArchCity Defenders. (2015). It’s not just Ferguson:Missouri Supreme Court should consolidate the municipal court system. ArchCity Defenders. Retrieved from:http://www.archcitydefenders.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Its-Not-Just-Ferguson-Consolidate-the-Municipal-Courts.pdf
- ArchCity Defenders. (2014). Municipal courts white paper. ArchCity Defenders. Retrieved from:http://03a5010.netsolhost.com/WordPress/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/ArchCity-Defenders-Municipal-Courts-Whitepaper.pdf
- Better Together. (2014). Public safety – Municipal courts. Better Together. Retrieved from:http://www.bettertogetherstl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/BT-Municipal-Courts-Report-Full-Report1.pdf
- Department of Justice (DOJ). (2015). Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Retrieved from:http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf
- Tokarz, K., Stragand, S., Blanton, J. & Terrell, J. Forthcoming 2015. Moving beyond Ferguson:The growing imperative to revamp our nation’s municipal courts and develop community justice centers to rebuild public trust, repair seriously fractured community relations, and advance restorative justice. Washington University Journal of Law & Policy.