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ArchCity Defenders - Municipal Courts White Paper, 2014

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ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
ArchCity Defenders represents St. Louis’ indigent on a pro bono
basis in criminal and civil legal matters while working closely with
social service providers to connect clients with services. Our primary
goal is to remove the legal barriers preventing our clients from
accessing the housing, job training, and treatment they need to get on
with their lives.
In the five years we have been doing this work, we have primarily
focused on representation in the municipal courts that have jurisdiction








representation of clients in these courts and the stories they shared of
their experiences prompted us to conduct a court watching program to
more closely observe the impact the municipal court system has on our
clients’ lives.
Clients reported being jailed because they were unable to pay
fines. Some who have been incarcerated for delinquent fine payments
This paper was written in 2014 by Thomas Harvey, John McAnnar, Michael-John Voss,
Megan Conn, Sean Janda, and Sophia Keskey. Thomas, John and MJ are the co-founders of
ArchCity Defenders. Megan, Sean, and Sophia were interns from Washington University.
We have worked over the last year to compile the data and quotes but finalized it this
summer. This version was updated on November 23, 2014. Big thanks to Megan, Sean, and
Sophia for helping us finish this important work.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
have lost jobs and housing as a result. Indigent mothers “failed to
appear” in court and had warrants issued for their arrest after arriving
early or on-time to court and being turned away because that particular
municipality prohibits children in court. Family members were forced to
wait outside courtrooms while loved-ones represent themselves in front
of a judge and a prosecutor. Many recounted being mistreated by the
bailiffs, city prosecutors, court clerks, and even some judges. Each
implicitly-condoned injustice carried out in St. Louis’ municipal courts
is a serious cause for concern. These practices violate the clear
mandates of the United States Constitution, and they destroy the
public’s confidence in the justice system. Furthermore, indiscriminately
ticketing and fining the poorest in any community exacerbates the
plight of low-income families by imposing heavy financial burdens on
those least equipped to bear it. The result: the poorest St. Louisans
watch an unnecessarily expensive and incredibly inefficient network of
municipal courts siphon away vast amounts of their money to support a
system seemingly designed to maintain the status quo, no matter how
much it hurts the communities the system is supposed to serve.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
We observed over sixty different courts during our court watching
program and obtained sworn statements from some of our clients and
other individuals we encountered. Roughly half of the courts we
observed did not engage in the illegal and harmful practices described
above while we were present. But, approximately thirty of those courts
did engage in at least one of these practices. Three courts, Bel-Ridge,
Florissant, and Ferguson, were chronic offenders and serve as prime
examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights of the poor,
undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and perpetuate
inefficiencies. This paper focuses on those three courts.
Overall, we observed that the poor, particularly poor minorities,
suffer significantly in their forced dealings with St. Louis’ municipal
court system. Expired vehicle registration, outdated inspections, driving
without insurance—while non-impoverished people may occasionally be
ticketed for such violations, the tickets are generally nothing more than
a minor inconvenience or annoyance. For the poor living in North
County St. Louis, these issues may exist as a consequence of their lack
of money, and all of them can come to a head in a single traffic stop and
quickly lead to daunting fines and oftentimes the revocation of driving

ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
privileges. What is more, 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. Matters are worsened by those involved in
municipal government choosing to close courts to the public and
allowing the incarceration of people for the failure to pay fines. These
policies push the poor further into poverty, prevent the homeless from
accessing the housing, treatment, and jobs they so desperately need to
regain stability in their lives, and violate the Constitution. These
violations are ongoing and they implicate the most fundamental
guarantees of the Constitution. They are the product of a disordered,
fragmented, and inefficient approach to criminal justice in St. Louis
County. Municipalities are failing to afford indigent defendants legal
counsel and refusing to make reasonable bond assessments. The
municipal court system fans the flames of racial tension, oppression,
and disenfranchisement by allowing municipalities to appropriate the
courts to act as governmental debt-collection agencies and implicitly
charging courts with ensuring the municipalities’ fine-generated


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
revenues are sufficient to maintain an inefficient governmental
Section I provides an overview of the Missouri municipal court
system, outlining how these courts operate and the revenue they earn.
Section II discusses the negative impact this system has on the public’s
confidence in their local government and its courts. Section III describes
how these courts and the policies they employ lead to job loss and
homelessness amongst the indigent population. Section IV details the
huge cost to operate the municipal courts and includes an analysis of
the costs to incarcerate the indigent who cannot afford to pay the fines
levied against them.
We intend to follow this paper with another which proposes
solutions to these issues and sets forth a strategy for implementing
them.2 This plan includes installing public defenders in each municipal
court, setting fines based upon the defendant’s income, consolidating








Since ArchCity Defenders first released this paper, in August of 2014, a number of
municipalities have implemented measures to alleviate some issues addressed below.
While this patchwork approach is a step in the right direction, fundamental and systemic
changes are expected and necessary to repair the broken relationship between St. Louis’
municipalities and its poorest residents.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
I. Overview of Municipal Courts in St. Louis County
A. Composition and Jurisdiction
St. Louis County is comprised of 90 municipalities ranging in
population from 12 to over 50,000.3 The density of the municipalities is
such that it is possible to drive through eight separate cities in less than
four miles on a stretch of Natural Bridge Road from Bel-Ridge to Pine
Lawn. Each has its own municipal code, its own police force, and its
own court. Eighty-one municipalities have their own court to enforce
their municipal codes across their slivers of St. Louis County. 4
Each municipal court has jurisdiction over its city’s ordinances.
Ordinance violations may result in prison time for violators, but
municipalities relying on fine payments to generate a substantial
revenue stream understandably prefer collecting fines to using scarce
resources to imprison violators. Nevertheless, municipalities may
imprison individuals for ordinance violations and keep them confined
until the fine and costs of the suit against them are paid or otherwise


(follow “Council Districts Map” link).
4 Susan Weich, Municipal court judges in St. Louis County are told to open doors, ST. LOUIS
POST-DISPATCH, Jul. 1, 2014,
5 MO. REV. STAT. §479.080 (2013); MO. SUP. CT. R. 37.43(a) (2004).


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
B. Process
Whether one can resolve ordinance violations often depends on his
or her ability to hire an attorney and pay fines. If a person has the
means to hire an attorney, that attorney enters his or her appearance
on behalf of the violator and requests what is called a “recommendation
for disposition” from the prosecutor in a letter. 6 Depending on the
charge, the prosecuting attorney will most likely recommend the charge
be amended to something less damaging on the violator’s record. For
instance, moving violations (such as a speeding ticket) are often
amended to non-moving violations (excessive vehicle noise) upon the
payment of a fine and court costs.7
Because Missouri works on a point system,8 in which a certain
number of points automatically suspends or revokes one’s driver’s
license, it is crucial to that such amendments be made, if possible. If a
person has the money, this works. For a simple speeding ticket, an

CITY OF DELLWOOD, MO., Attorney Information, (last visited Aug. 26, 2014).
7 This procedure is not explicitly spelled out on any website; individuals can talk to
municipal workers and court employees to figure it out, or they can hire an attorney. See,
e.g., ST. PETERS, MO., Attorney Guidelines,
(last visited Aug. 26, 2014).
8 MO. DEP’T OF REV., Tickets and Points, (last visited Aug. 26, 2014).


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
attorney is paid $50-100, 9 the municipality is paid $150-200 in fines
and court costs, and the defendant avoids points on his or her license, as
well as any possible increases in insurance costs. For simple cases,
neither the attorney nor the defendant need to go to court.
However, if a person cannot afford an attorney or pay the fines,
prosecutors do not make any amendments. Consequently, the outcomes
can be astoundingly different for the poor than for the more affluent,
under certain circumstances. The safety of our roads depends on drivers
obeying speed limits, but this can be practically difficult for drivers who
regularly drive through St. Louis’ 90 unique municipalities. The
frontage road speed limit may have been 45 mph in the last city, but
that is cold comfort to the driver being ticketed for driving 45 mph in a
30 mph zone one mile down the road. Next, since the person cannot
afford an attorney or to pay the fine, points are automatically added to
the cash-poor driver’s license. If the subtotal after that ticket is high
enough, the person’s license will be suspended. That person still owes
money to the municipality which he or she was already unable to pay,

See, e.g., TRAFFIC LAW COUNSELORS, (last visited Aug. 26,
2014) ($45 for basic traffic tickets) BUBLITZ & BARO, LLC., (last visited Aug. 26, 2014) (Offering “affordable payment plans
that start as low as $100”).


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
only now he or she will have to sort out that significant issue without
the aid of a car to drive to work to earn money. While many courts
expect payment in full and explicitly state that no payment plans will
be offered, 10 other courts frequently allow payment plans, sometimes
offering those in need plans with payments as low as $50 per month. If
a person cannot pay the amount in full before the court date listed on a
ticket, he or she must appear in court on that night to explain why.
Missed court dates often lead to the issuance of a warrant for the
person’s arrest.11
People who are arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court
to pay the fines frequently sit in jail for an extended period. No
municipality holds court on a daily basis, and some courts meet only
once each month. 12 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.
Even so, nearly every municipality does not provide lawyers for
those who cannot afford counsel. As a result, unrepresented defendants
ST. ANN, MO., Court Procedure and Your Rights, (last visited Aug. 26, 2014).
11 HAZELWOOD, MO. CODE § 140.280 (2001).
12 DELLWOOD, MO., Municipal Court Dates, (last visited Aug. 26, 2014).


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
often plead guilty without knowing that they have right to consult with
a lawyer. 13 Defendants are also sentenced to probation and to the
payment of unreasonable fines without a knowing, voluntary, and
intelligent waiver of their constitutional right to counsel. Despite these
defendants’ apparent poverty, courts frequently levy exorbitant fines,
sometimes more than three times a person’s monthly income, without
considering the person’s ability to pay and how it may affect his or her
Defendants are entitled to a hearing to determine their ability to
pay under Missouri law.15 Upon revocation of probation for failing to
pay, defendants are again entitled to an inquiry into their ability to
pay. 16 Based on our observations, these hearings rarely occur. As a
result, defendants are incarcerated for their poverty.17

Defendants’ rights information is occasionally included in municipalities’ reading
materials published online. See, e.g., Attorney Guidelines and Attorney Information, supra
notes 6, 7.
14 See, e.g., Sophia Keskey, “Nichole” Stories of Hope and Courage: Homelessness in the
ShowMe State, VIMEO (Jul. 29, 2014),

Davis v. City of Charleston, Mo., 635 F.Supp. 197, 198-199 (1986) (holding that upon
raising inference that poverty is reason for non-payment rather than contempt, defendant
is entitled to hearing on issue of indigency).
16 Homelessness, supra note 14.




ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
C. Judges and Prosecutors in Municipal Court Are Private Attorneys
Municipal court judges, pursuant to RSMo 479.02, are part-time
positions. 18 In St. Louis County, municipal court judges are often
private criminal defense attorneys and sometimes county prosecutors.
They may serve in multiple jurisdictions, and the judge need not be a
resident of the municipality. 19 Missouri does not prohibit, and some
municipalities explicitly permit, practicing prosecutors and judges from
one municipality to serve as a judge in another.20 Similarly, municipal
court judges and prosecutors may be employees of the State working as
a prosecutor in St. Louis County. It is possible for a defense attorney to
appear before a judge on Tuesday who is the prosecuting attorney in
another municipality on Wednesday. Later that week, that same person
may be seen in practicing law in yet another role as a state prosecutor.
D. Revenue for Municipality: Collection and Enforcement
Court costs and fines represent a significant source of income for
these towns. Two municipalities alone, Ferguson and Florissant, earned
a combined net profit of $3.5 million from municipal courts in 2013.21

MO. REV. STAT. § 479.020(2) (2013).
MO. REV. STAT. §479.020(4) (2013).
20 See, e.g., Attorney Information, supra note 6.
available at


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
As Ray Downs from the RiverFront Times reported, the amount
collected through the municipal courts seems to be inversely
proportional to the wealth of the municipality. For example, the City of
Pine Lawn is 96% black and “its per capita income [is] a measly
$13,000. In 2013, the city collected more than $1.7 million in fines and
court fees.”


Conversely, “the affluent west-county suburb of

Chesterfield, with a population of 47,000 (approximately fifteen times
bigger than Pine Lawn) and a per capita income of $50,000, collected
just $1.2 million from municipal fines, according to statistics compiled
by the state.”23
This money is essential to maintaining governmental operations
at the level these municipalities have attained. Whether municipalities
intend to use jail time to coerce individuals to pay is irrelevant, because
the vast number of warrants issued and the astounding amount of fines
generated from such a poor community make the coercion a matter of
fact. According to Downs, “Pine Lawn has a population of only 3,275,

Ray Downs, ArchCity Defenders: Meet the legal superheroes fighting for St. Louis'
downtrodden, RIVERFRONT TIMES, Apr. 24, 2014,




ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
yet last year it issued 5,333 new warrants, bringing its total
outstanding warrants to 23,457.”24
E. Experience
For the vast majority of St. Louisans, a run-in with the municipal
court is the only personal interaction they will have with the justice
system. This interaction, thus, shapes public perception of justice and
the American legal system. Unfortunately, for many of the poorest
citizens of the region, the municipal courts and police departments
inflict a kind of low-level harassment involving traffic stops, court
appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay without
a meaningful inquiry into whether an individual has the means to pay.
Until recently, many local courts denied access to the general
public.25 When summoned to one of these courts, defendants may face
jail time if they fail to appear. If they lack access to childcare, they
bring their children with them. According to local judge Frank

Id. Downs remarked on other municipalities with similarly astonishing statistics:
“Several other north-county municipalities with high populations of African Americans also
have similarly high warrant-to-population ratios as Pine Lawn. Country Club Hills, with a
population of only 1,274, issued 2,000 municipal warrants last year and has more than
33,000 outstanding. Over 90% of Country Club Hills' residents are black and they have a
per capita income of under $14,000. The same is true in nearby Wellston, a city that's 97%
black and has a per capita income of less than $12,000. Last year its municipal court issued
more warrants than the city has residents — 3,883 new warrants compared with a
population of 2,300.”
25 Weich, supra note 4.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
Vatterott, 37% of the courts responding to his survey unconstitutionally
closed the courts to non-defendants. Defendants are then faced with the
choice of leaving their kids in the parking lot or going into court,
breaking the court rules in the process. Antonio Morgan reported being
denied entry to the court with his children and then being jailed for
child endangerment after leaving them in the court parking lot under
the supervision of a friend.26
For communities of color, this harassment is palpable in a way
that does not require data. Nevertheless, the notion that minorities are
harassed by police more often than whites is statistically supported by
the annual reports on racial disparity in police stops prepared by the
Missouri Attorney General’s office. 27 In the state of Missouri, African
Americans are pulled over “at a rate 63% greater than expected based
solely on their proportion of the population 16 and older.”28 The data is
similarly problematic in Bel-Ridge, Ferguson, and Florissant, as
discussed below.



MO. ATT’Y GEN., 2013 Mo. Vehicle Stops Report: Executive Summary,
28 MO. ATT’Y GEN. NEWS RELEASE, AG issues annual Vehicle Stops Report (May 30, 2014),


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
II. The Municipal Court System Harms Public Confidence in the
Judiciary, the Police, and the Municipalities
The abovementioned policies and procedures negatively impact
the public’s confidence in the integrity and impartiality of both the
municipalities and the courts. For most individuals, the only
substantive interaction they have with the Missouri justice system or
with their municipal government is through the municipal courts, and
the impressions instilled by those courts reflect on the entire
municipality and court system.
As noted in the Missouri Municipal Bench Book—a publication
drafted largely by municipal court judges for municipal court judges—
“Public impression of justice and its administration is formed more in
municipal courts than in any other court of the state. The judge as
judicial officer will instill in that individual his or her lasting image of










Unfortunately, the current policies adopted by the municipal court
system lead to the impression of the courts and municipalities as racist
institutions that care much more about collecting money—generally
from poor, black residents—than about dispensing justice.

MO. BENCH BOOK §1.8 (2010), available at


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
A. Municipal Court Procedures Lead to Impressions of Racial Profiling
Many residents feel that the police target black residents and try
to find something wrong in order to issue tickets. The courts, in turn,
issue arrest warrants for failure to pay and send them to jail if they fail
to pay thereafter. As one defendant said, “They’re searching to find
something wrong. If you dig deep enough, you’ll always find dirt.” 30
Mind you, the “dirt” in question here is not some reprehensible,
repugnant wrong against society. The dirt so-often sought and found by
police in these municipalities is typically expired inspections, expired
tags, or driving without insurance. A group of defendants waiting
outside of a municipal court for their turn to go before a judge noted
that there were no white individuals waiting with them. In fact, one
said, “You go to all of these damn courts, and there’s no white people,”31
while another defendant even ticked off specific municipalities that he
thinks engage in racial profiling. He said, “In Dellwood, Ferguson,
basically in North County, if you’re black, they’re going to stop you.”32

Digital Audio: Pretextual Stops & Minor Infractions Wreak Havoc on Low-Income
Residents, 0:20 (Jun. 25, 2014),
31 Digital Audio: Profiling for Revenue, a Tardy Judge, and Racial Tension, 3:09 (Jun. 25,
32 Id. at 1:15.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
The widespread feeling among defendants that the police and
courts target black residents has a substantial statistical basis. In BelRidge in 2013, 75.7% of all traffic stops involved a black motorist.33 This
number is staggering in itself, but what may be more shocking is that
100% of all searches and arrests originating from traffic stops in BelRidge that year involved black motorists. 34 Of the 775 black drivers
pulled over, 11 vehicles were searched and 32 black drivers were
arrested. Of the 249 non-black drivers pulled over, no vehicles were
searched and no drivers were arrested.
In Ferguson, the statistics indicate a similar degree of racial
profiling. Overall, 86% of vehicle stops involved a black motorist,
although blacks make up just 67% of the population. By comparison,
whites comprise 29% of the population of Ferguson but just 12.7% of

According to the Attorney General’s “disparity index,” which compares the percentage of
traffic stops that involve a given race to the percentage of driving-age residents in the
municipality of that race (so a 1.0 indicates perfectly proportionate stops while below a 1.0
indicates “under-representation” of a given race in traffic stops and above a 1.0 indicates
“over-representation” of a given race in traffic stops), this number is actually an “underrepresentation” of black motorists in stop data. These numbers, however, may be skewed
given the very high percentage of black residents in the municipality, a proportion that is
almost certainly larger than the proportion of black drivers in the municipality, given the
number of highly-trafficked inter-municipal roads running through Bel-Ridge. MO. ATT’Y
GEN., 2013 Mo. Vehicle Stops Report: Racial Profiling Data, Bel-Ridge Police Dept. (May
30, 2014),




ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
vehicle stops.35 After being stopped in Ferguson, blacks are almost twice
as likely as whites to be searched (12.1% vs. 6.9%) and precisely two
times more likely to be arrested (10.4% vs. 5.2%).36 Ironically, this data
is at odds with the fact that searches of black individuals produced
contraband only 21.7% of the time, while searches under similar
circumstances involving white drivers produced contraband 34.0% of
the time, a 57% greater rate of success.
Finally, the Florissant police department also disproportionately
stops black motorists, who are stopped over four times more than their
non-black counterparts. In fact, African Americans represent only a
quarter of the municipality's populace but comprise 57% of Florissant
Police Department stops. Out of these stops, white drivers were
arrested 7.2% of the time, whereas black drivers were arrested 14.9%,
more than twice as often. The search rate was equally disproportionate,
with white drivers being searched 8% of the time, and blacks 15.8%.
The Ferguson data also demonstrated that white drivers who were
Even given Ferguson’s large black population, the disparity index shows that black
motorists are over-represented in traffic stops. African-Americans have a disparity index of
1.37, while all other races have disparity indexes between 0.35 and 0.41. These numbers
are, again, likely to be even worse than suggested here given the likely difference in
demographic makeup between the residential population of Ferguson and the population of
people who drive through the area.
36 Profiling, supra note 31.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
searched were more likely to have contraband in the car, at 12% in
searches of cars driven by white people and only 7.4% of stops involving
black residents.37
B. Municipal Court Procedures Lead to Impressions of Lack of
Municipal Care about Residents
Many residents feel that municipal courts exist to collect fine
revenue, not to dispense justice. “Absolutely they don’t want nothing
but your money,” one defendant said, but “you get people out here who
don’t make a whole lot of money.”38 He then described the startlingly
common experience of being arrested, jailed, and instructed to call
everybody he could think of who might have money to pay his fine—
with the promise of three or four days in jail if he could not cobble
together the sum.
At one Bel-Ridge Municipal Court session, we interviewed several
individuals from a large group of defendants who were waiting to
resolve tickets for failing to subscribe to the municipality’s trash
collection service, an infraction that many defendants felt was just

Digital Audio: Going to Jail, and Going to Jail, and Going to Jail, 0:20-1:30 (Jun. 25, 2014),



ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
another way for the municipality to make money.39 One man who had
appeared in court multiple times declared that he was fed up with being
penalized for not having money to pay the city for a service he did not
want. He insisted that he had in fact dealt with his trash, but could not
afford to subscribe to the only city-approved waste collection service
after paying down on his outstanding hospital bills and monthly
Another woman who was there on the same charge was adamant
that there were no visible signs that her home did not have trash
service and that she helped even maintain the neighborhood, picking up
trash from passing cars and cutting the grass of the vacant houses on
either side of her property. She, like many of the other defendants we
talked to, attributed her legal problems to the municipality’s
determination to find something wrong and collect revenue. Chagrined,
she exclaimed, “They had to come and dig, they had to come and look in
my files. There’s no way you could tell I don’t have trash service, that

See, e.g., Digital Audio: ArchCity Defenders Recording No. 3, Bel-Ridge Municipal Court
(Jun. 25, 2014),

Recording unavailable.

ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
can is out there! What I’m mad at is, how did you get this
Along with the wide-spread impression that municipal courts are
little more than money-collection services, many defendants complained
about the lack of consideration given to their circumstances and needs.
Outside, the bailiff announced repeatedly to the line of people, “No
children, only the people on the docket come in unless you’re a
witness.” 42 One man in line expressed concern over the general
procedure of the court: “After you come in like two or three times, if a
person hasn’t paid [the fine] by then, then they gonna sock it to you,
they about to put you in jail. People are in hardship, they can’t pay the
fine, and if you got children, they won’t let you take them in there with


Recording No. 3 at 3:05 supra note 39.

Recording unavailable. ArchCity Defenders attests to the veracity and authenticity of the


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
you.”43 Another agreed and summed up his experience ruefully, “They
[are] treating us bad.”44
C. Municipal Court Procedures Harm the Resident/Municipality
As a result of these impressions, many residents of these
municipalities have a broken and antagonistic relationship with their
municipal governments. One defendant, who estimated he has been
jailed fifteen or sixteen times over ten years—all on the same charge of
driving with a suspended license—said that he now skips court if he is
unable to pay his fines in order to avoid further detention. Another
defendant said that he will always plead not guilty, in an attempt to
prolong the process “and make them spend more money.”45
In addition, a shockingly common sentiment among defendants
was a desire to leave their municipality. For example, one long-time


Id. This particular court session was on June 25th, one day after Presiding Judge Maura

McShane specifically released an order reminding municipal courts that such practices are
an unconstitutional restriction of the court system. Of course, on that day, the order was
not followed. Only recently was the prohibition against children in the courtroom removed
from Bel-Ridge’s “Court Procedures” webpage. Cf Archived Bel-Ridge Court Procedures
Page (Aug. 24, 2014) (stating “No children are allowed in court” as first rule on the page,
under “Your Rights in the Municipal Court of Bel-Ridge”)with Village of Bel Ridge, Mo.,

Court Procedures (Current Page).
44 Digital Audio: ArchCity Defenders Recording No. 2, Bel-Ridge Municipal Court, 0:20
(Jun. 25, 2014) at 0:20.

Digital Audio: Going to Jail, and Going to Jail, and Going to Jail, Dellwood Municipal Court,
0:39 (Jun. 25, 2014),


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
resident looked forward to leaving Bel-Ridge as soon as his lease
expired. Another defendant stated, “I’m gonna leave St. Louis. That’s
what I’m ready to do. I’m about to go. There’s too much going on in St.
Louis, you can’t find a job, and when you can’t find a job you hold on to
the itty bitty jobs you got and they wanna [mess] with the little people
that are actually working. That’s what St. Louis is all about: trying to
get the people that’s working.”46 She said she would stay in Bel-Ridge
long enough for her daughter to graduate high school, but she resented
all of “the little petty stuff” that she had to deal with there.47 This kind
of negative sentiment directly hurts the municipality and erodes its
sense of community. When a municipality repeatedly marginalizes and
penalizes its residents, they advertise their unpleasant experiences to
others in the region and spread the negative impression of that
municipality. One resident, the same man who said he pled not guilty to
cost the municipality more money, shrewdly declared: “It is ridiculous

Digital Audio: ArchCity Defenders Recording No. 1, Bel-Ridge Municipal Court, 3:23
(Jun. 25, 2014),



ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
how these small municipalities make their lifeline off the blood of the
people that drive through their area.”48
III. The Negative Effects of the Municipal Court System on Defendants
A. Costs Related To Harassment
One defendant in line to enter the Bel-Ridge court stated that he
had been harassed by police and was seeking legal aid to sue the
municipality. The man said that the officers who arrested him lacked
warrants and then ignored his ensuing anxiety attacks, using mace and
force after he told them he was having difficulty breathing.
Harassment, whether physical or psychological, has serious negative
consequences for the victim. According to the University of York,
harassment can lead to lack of confidence, fatigue, depression, isolation,
frustration, stress, trauma, and a loss of motivation, all of which make
it difficult for the individual to succeed at work or to engage in their
community. On a personal level, this can lead to job loss, family
estrangement, and much more. Widespread harassment can damage
the performance and morale of the entire community.49

Digital Audio: More Pretextual Stops, More Money for Municipalities, Dellwood Municipal
Court, 1:27 (Jun. 25, 2014),
49 Benjamin Justice & Tracey L. Meares, How the Criminal Justice System Educates


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
B. The Costs Related To Incarceration
In many municipalities, individuals who are unable to pay





repeatedly over many years.




One defendant described being

incarcerated fifteen or sixteen times over a decade on the same
municipal charge. While this policy of incarceration imposes relatively
steep financial costs on the municipalities involved (many of which have
to rent out jail space elsewhere because they do not have facilities
capable of holding detainees overnight), the negative effects that it has
for the individuals involved are far greater.
Most concretely, the process of being incarcerated counteracts any
progress a defendant has made in his or her life. For many municipal
court defendants who work for an hourly wage, missing three or four
days of work while in jail will seriously hinder their ability to balance
their already-strained budgets and often result in being fired. The
unfortunate irony, therefore, is that jail stints levied for the inability to
pay fines actually make it much harder for defendants to raise the
necessary funds. In addition, research suggests that incarceration has
Citizens, 655 ANNALS AM. ACAD. POL. & SOC. SCI.
159, 173 (Sept. 2014).
50 Recall the defendant referred to above who estimated he had been jailed at least fifteen
times in a decade for the same charge of driving on a suspended license.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
lifelong negative effects on earnings and economic mobility because it
reduces individuals’ access to steady jobs with opportunities for
Detention also leads to a variety of more subtle problems.
Research has shown that detention—even short-term detention in jails
rather than prisons—has negative psychological consequences for
defendants. The lack of privacy and constant scrutiny by guards can be
“psychologically debilitating.”52 Perhaps the largest psychological strain
happens as defendants—even those who are only detained for a few
days—mentally adjust to being behind bars.


Along with these

psychological consequences, research has shown that children of






developmental problems.”54 While these negative effects of detainment

Bruce Western, The Impact of Incarceration on Wage Mobility and Inequality, 67 AM.
SOC. REV. 526, 526-546 (2002).
prtg 2009); Mika’il DeVeaux, The Trauma of the Incarceration Experience, 48 HARV. C.R.C.L. L. REV. 257, 259 (2013), available at
53 TOCH, supra note 52, at 144.
CHILDREN 2 (Henry M. Treadwell ed., 2008), available at


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
are more difficult to quantify than the lost income described above, they
are the long-term legacy of these short-term detention programs.
C. The Costs Related to Loss of Housing
Targeting poor individuals and families with fines for traffic and
ordinance violations can have real and devastating consequences on
their ability to hold on to stable housing. For those living on the
financial edge, each day presents difficult choices between competing
needs: groceries or utilities, car loan payment or car insurance
payment, clothes for children or vehicle inspection and registration,
rent or repairs. Court-imposed fines of just a few hundred dollars can be
enough to push a struggling family over the edge, out of their home and
into homelessness. Some manage to find refuge with relatives or live
“doubled up” with another family, but many have no such safety net.
Furthermore, the financial distress that causes a family to lose
their home or apartment continues to follow them as they attempt to
get back on their feet, sharply limiting their ability to obtain a new
residence. Most landlords require a credit check and background report
up front, and a prior eviction or bad credit history raises red flags which
often lead to immediate rejection. In the Asheville Citizen-Times special
report on homelessness, No Place to Call Home, Brian Alexander of the

ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
non-profit Homeward Bound explains, "Once someone has had an
eviction, a lot of landlords and management companies won't even
touch them. An eviction … can take seven years to get that off your
credit report. That's a long time.”55 Unfortunately, a prior eviction is
virtually a prerequisite for homelessness. In the same article, Heather
Dillashaw, director of the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative,
explains the path to homelessness: "People who become homeless
almost always have poor credit—you don't fall into homelessness
overnight, after paying bills on time and keeping up with rent.
[Homeless] families have almost always made some tough choices." 56
Current housing practices continue to punish those forced to make such
tough choices for years to come, enforcing a vicious cycle of instability.
Even public housing programs place strict limitations on who is
eligible to receive assistance. The St. Louis Housing Authority cites any
criminal arrest, including for failing to pay fines or appear in court, as

Casey Blake & Erin Brethauer, No Place to Call Home: The Rise in Youth and Family
Homelessness, ASHEVILLE CITIZEN-TIMES, June 23, 2014, http://www.citizen55


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
grounds for denial of assistance. 57 Housing is typically denied if any
member of the family has been evicted from federally assisted housing
in the past three years. Additionally, individuals struggling with drug
addiction or alcohol abuse—common reasons that people become
homeless in the first place—are often barred from public housing. 58
Without stable housing, however, an individual’s ability to overcome
addiction is severely compromised. Finally, if an applicant misses an
appointment or deadline with the Housing Authority—potentially due
to a court appearance or jail time for not paying court fines—their
petition may be summarily denied.59
D. The Costs Related to Families
As previously noted, fines set by municipal courts can amount to
huge portions of the defendant’s monthly income, leading to deepened
poverty, incarceration for failure to pay, and even homelessness. A
study done by Zahid Ahmed characterizes the experience of poverty as
an important component of family dysfunction, strain on spousal
relationships, and childhood development issues. Those in poverty

POLICY 9-6, June 27, 2013, available at
58 Id. at 10-1.
59 Id. at 10-5.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
recount difficulties in paying for very basic needs, and fines can push
them over the edge.60 Family provides the only direct support system for
many people in poverty, and individuals without such a network often
lack a financial safety net as well as meaningful social connection.
If the individual has children, intense familial conflict and
estrangement can cause children to have serious childhood development
problems, including depression, trust and abandonment issues, and
underachievement or failure in school. These problems in childhood
frequently carry over into adulthood and contribute to a cycle of
IV. The Financial Costs of the Municipal Court System
A. Bel-Ridge
The Village of Bel-Ridge is a small municipality located in
northern St. Louis County. Bel-Ridge has 1,087 households and 2,737
residents,61 the vast majority of whom (83.1%) are African-American.62




ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
In addition, almost half (42.3%) of the residents are below the Federal
Poverty Level, with a median annual household income of $21,910. 37%
of households receive food stamps.63
In spite of the relatively small and poor nature of the
municipality, Bel-Ridge manages to collect hundreds of thousands of
dollars every year in municipal court fines. In fact, in Bel-Ridge’s 2014
budget, it estimates that it will collect $450,000 in fine revenue64—or,
an average of $450 per Bel-Ridge household—making municipal court
fines the largest single source of revenue in the budget. Moreover, in
fiscal year 2013, Bel-Ridge’s municipal court disposed of 4,900 cases65
and issued 1,723 warrants.66 This means that in the last year alone,
Bel-Ridge’s court system handled almost five cases and issued almost
two warrants per Bel-Ridge household.
Of course, such a municipal court operation does not come without
costs to the municipality. In its 2014 budget, Bel-Ridge estimates that it
will spend $101,200 to operate its municipal court, including nearly
64 VILLAGE OF BEL-RIDGE, BUDGET 1 (2014), available at
65 JUDICIAL REPORT, supra note 21, at 288.
66 Id. at 303.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
$100,000 in salaries and benefits for a part-time judge ($18,600),
prosecuting attorney ($25,000), and court clerks ($38,350). By way of
comparison, assistant public defenders in Missouri have a starting
salary of $38,544 annually,67 the average circuit attorney in St. Louis
City earns $52,347 annually,68 and the average city court judge in St.
Louis City earns $78,592 annually.69 Those are full-time positions. The
judge and attorney in Bel-Ridge, however, work only three evenings—
roughly twelve hours combined—per month, and both also operate
private legal practices. To put it another way, the Bel-Ridge prosecuting
attorney position is a part-time side job which requires 7.5%70 of the
work required by full-time jobs, but is paid 65% as much as a Missouri
assistant public defender, 48% as much as the average Missouri circuit
attorney, and 32% as much as the average St. Louis-area city court
judge. For the approximately 144 hours each year the judge and

69 Id. at 29.
70 Assuming 12 hours of work per month for the Bel-Ridge attorney as compared to 160
hours per month for a full-time job.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
prosecutor in Bel-Ridge spend in court, they earn $129 and $174 per
hour, respectively.
In Bel-Ridge, as in many other municipalities, the prosecuting
attorney and judge are chosen not by constituents or through a merit
system but instead are hand-picked by the Village Trustees. This
system, of course, provides terribly misaligned incentives for both
positions. These two positions are extraordinarily valuable to the men
who hold them—providing enough additional annual income to send
children to private school or public college, or to pad retirement
accounts, fund vacations, or pay the mortgage—all for twelve hours of
work each month. More disconcertingly, the undeniable consequence of
these individuals’ position as employees of the Village of Bel-Ridge, is
that they have a strong incentive to ensure that Bel-Ridge receives
enough fine revenue to cover their salaries and those of the peers. This
is undoubtedly a difficult position for these well-paid part-time
municipal employees to manage, but that does not change the fact that
the mere existence of these jobs is at odds with the ideals of fairness
and justice that ought to characterize the criminal courts.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
In addition, the Village of Bel Ridge engages in a policy of
detaining individuals who are unable to pay imposed fines. This choice
adds another substantial layer of costs for the municipality, including
$45,000 (according to the Village’s 2014 budget) to jail these
individuals. Moreover, because Bel-Ridge does not have its own
detention facility, it must take one of its three on-duty police officers
(who make $16.47, on average, each hour) away from real police work to
transport ordinance violators to court from jail and back.71
B. Ferguson
Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with
21,203 residents living in 8,192 households.72 Most (67%) residents are
African-American, while the remainder (29%) is mostly white.


Ferguson’s unemployment rate is 14.3%, 74 more than double that of
both St. Louis County (6.2%)75 and Missouri (6.6%),76 and 10% of the




(2008-2012), available at


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
city’s 9,105 housing units are vacant.77 22% of residents live below the
poverty level, including 35.3% of children under 18, and 21.7% received
food stamps in the last year.78
Despite Ferguson’s poverty, fines and court fees comprise the
second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400.79 In
2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants80 and
12,018 cases,


or three warrants and 1.5 cases per household.

According to a court employee, the docket for an average court session
may include as many as 1,500 cases. 82 Assuming an 80% conviction
rate,83 the average fine in a case resulting in a guilty verdict would be

79 CITY OF FERGUSON FIN. DEP’T, ANNUAL OPERATING BUDGET 49 (2013-2014), available at
80 JUDICIAL REPORT, supra note 21, at 319; id. at 303 (32,126 warrants outstanding on June
30, 2012, plus 32,975 warrants issued in FY 2013—40,569 warrants outstanding on June
30, 2013, totaling 24,532 warrants disposed in fiscal year 2013).
81 Id. at 288 (forty-five Alcohol/drug-related Traffic cases disposed + 6,013 Other Traffic
cases disposed, plus 5,960 Non-traffic Ordinance cases disposed, totaling 12,018 total cases
disposed in fiscal year 2013).
82 Phone conversation with Ferguson Municipal Court employee (Jun. 17, 2014) (no
recording available).
available at


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
In addition to such heavy legal prosecution, Ferguson and other
municipal courts engage in a number of operational procedures that
make it even more difficult for defendants to navigate the courts. For
example, a Ferguson court employee reported that the bench routinely
starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then
locks the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official
hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly
late to receive an additional criminal charge for failing to appear
pursuant to a court summons.84
To carry out its work, the Ferguson Municipal Court employs a
judge, prosecuting attorney, and assistant prosecuting attorney as well
as three full-time and three part-time court clerks. 85 Residents of
Ferguson have no direct voice in determining who holds the powerful
position of prosecuting attorney, since he or she is appointed by the city
attorney with the approval of the city manager.86
Unlike Bel-Ridge and Florissant, Ferguson does not publicize the
salaries paid to its prosecutor and judge. However, in 2013, the total
forecasted expenditure for municipal court personnel was $221,700,

Phone conversation, supra note 82.
FERGUSON BUDGET, supra note 74, at 67.



ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
with an additional $59,500 categorized under professional services.
$37,100 was spent on supplies and services.87 The Ferguson Municipal
Court holds three sessions per month, meaning that Ferguson spent
$318,300 to fund just thirty-six court sessions, or $8,841.67 per session.
To be more specific, at three hours or less per session, each hour of court
costs the City of Ferguson approximately $2,950 dollars.
For the time being, Ferguson relies on the St. Louis County jail to
hold its inmates beyond seventy-two hours, 88 city police officers are
required to take time out of their patrol schedules to make the fortyminute round trip to transport prisoners to and from the facility. At any
given time, Ferguson has eight patrol officers on duty for its 21,203
citizens,89 or 3.8 officers for every 1,000 citizens. Although the officer-tocitizen ratio is comparable to that of St. Louis City (2.5 officers for every
1,000 citizens), even one Ferguson officer tasked with court duty rather
than patrolling his or her regular beat decreases the Ferguson Police
Department’s ability to conduct real police work. Thus, any time an



Phone conversation with officer at Ferguson Jail (Jul. 21, 2014) (no recording available).
Police department staff members mentioned that the jail is currently under construction
but did not know when it was to be completed and its previous or future capacity.
89 Phone conversation with Ferguson Police Department employee (June 17, 2014) (no
recording available).


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
officer drives to Clayton, the remaining force of seven officers must
share the absent officer’s burden of protecting an additional 2,650
C. Florissant
Florissant is the largest municipality in St. Louis County with a
population of 52,363. More than a quarter (26.8%) of the population is
African-American, while a large majority (69.3%) is white. 7.9% of the
population is unemployed, slightly over the unemployment rates of both
St. Louis County (6.8%) and the State of Missouri (6.6%). 8.6% of the
population is below the poverty line.90
Just under one-third (32.9%) of the cases the Florissant Municipal
Court disposed of in 2013 resulted in a warrant, 91 meaning that
Florissant issued roughly one warrant for every six residents that








approximately one-quarter of the court’s $3,000,000 revenue. Fines
were the third largest source of revenue in the municipality’s budget,
behind only sales and utilities taxes.



available at
91 JUDICIAL REPORT, supra note 21, at 288.
92 Id. at 303.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
In order to operate such an extensive court system, Florissant
dedicates significant financial and personnel resources to hearing cases,
incarcerating those with outstanding fines and warrants, transporting
prisoners, and staffing its municipal court. In 2013, prisoner supplies
for incarcerated individuals cost the municipality roughly $3,861.93 The
municipality also spends over 1.75 million dollars to run the municipal
court, in which 90.6% of filed cases are “other traffic” violations.
Out of the 2013 annual budget, $473,668 went to pay municipal
court salaries, with an additional $408,900 to professional services and
$9,300 to office supplies. 94 Although only a part-time position, with
roughly two regular court appearances a month or twenty-six in a year,
the appointed judge earns $50,000 annually, only slightly less than the
full-time judge of the St. Louis City Court. The Florissant Prosecuting
Attorney, also a part-time employee, earns $56,060 for only twelve
regular court appearances (with additional office hours). In addition,
the municipality pays an assistant prosecuting attorney $33,158 for the
same number of appearances. By comparison, the starting salary for
full-time public defenders in Missouri is $38,544, and the average stateCITY OF FLORISSANT FIN. DEP’T, ADOPTED BUDGET 44 (2014), available at
94 Id. at 18.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
employed circuit attorney earns $52,347 each year. In other words,
Florissant’s part-time prosecuting attorney works roughly 4% of a fulltime job, but earns 145% of a full-time public defender’s salary and
102% of the average full-time circuit attorney’s. The only full-time
position is that of court clerk, whose annual salary is $46,530. Five
assistant clerks cost Florissant another $191,360 per year, and reserve
police officers are paid $37,700.95
V. Next Steps
ArchCity Defenders is working to develop proposed solutions to the
problems outlined above. In the meantime, we recommend that courts
make the constitutionally-required inquiry into a person’s ability to pay
assessed fines prior to incarcerating them for non-payment. This step is
necessary to avoid accusations of equal protection and due process
violations and prevent the perpetuation of debtor’s prisons in St. Louis
ArchCity Defenders, in collaboration with St. Louis University School of
Law, is working on a proposed rule requiring that fines be assessed in
proportion to income. This simple adjustment would virtually eliminate

Id. at 19.


ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper
the need for additional court dates for pay dockets that clog the system,








incarceration for non-payment. Additionally, since many courts do not
offer community service as an alternative to fines, ArchCity Defenders
proposes the development of a comprehensive community service plan
to allow the indigent an alternative to fine payments. Finally, ArchCity
Defenders suggests that St. Louis set its long-term sights on having
these violations handled in the associate state court of St. Louis County.




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