Ferguson, Missouri Under Fire for Revenue-based Criminal Justice System

By Christopher Zoukis

Following 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri ignited by the killing of an unarmed black youth by a white police officer, some local law enforcement practices have been changed. The reforms were spurred, in large part, by a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report that found Ferguson’s police department and court system were motivated in their tactics – which fell most heavily on the town’s African-American population – by the desire to generate revenue from citations, fines and court costs.

According to the March 2015 DOJ report, which detailed the “patterns and practice[s]” of Ferguson courts and law enforcement officials, while the town’s black population accounted for 67 percent of its overall population, that demographic accounted for 93 percent of all arrests, 90 percent of all citations issued and 85 percent of all traffic stops initiated by the Ferguson Police Department.

The DOJ found that Ferguson police and court officials had essentially applied excessive law enforcement tactics for the purpose of generating revenue off the backs of the town’s mostly black and impoverished residents. The report further noted that these types of practices were likely widespread in neighboring municipalities in St. Louis County.

As such, the DOJ recommended more than two dozen reforms of city police and court practices, including greater transparency in court procedures, discontinuing arrest warrants as a means of collecting outstanding fines and court fees, reducing fines and fees, and implementing payment plans for people unable to pay what they owe.

Noting several violations of federal law pertaining to racial discrimination, as well as rampant suppression of citizens’ First Amendment rights, the DOJ made it known at the time of the report’s release that if the city did not comply with the recommendations it could face federal court action.

When the report was issued, the City of Ferguson had reportedly started implementing some reforms – including “bias-free policing” education for officers; reduction of jail time for warrantless arrests, from 72 to 12 hours; streamlining bail bond procedures; and requiring officers to gain supervisor approval to issue more than two citations per traffic stop.

According to the DOJ report, in 2013 Ferguson raked in $2.6 million in court fees and fines. In 2015, the city was projected to take in $3.09 million out of a total $11.07 million in general revenue funds.

A revenue-based justice system that mainly targeted minorities was well-established in Ferguson by the time riots broke out in 2014 following the shooting death of Michael Brown, 18, by police officer Darren Wilson. As noted by then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the city’s profit-oriented policing had “severely undermined the public trust,” resulting in a “powder keg” situation where Brown’s death was the match.

In 2010, Ferguson, with a population of 21,000 residents, ranked in the top eight of 80 municipal courts in St. Louis County in terms of revenue. By 2012, annual revenue generated by the town’s court system had exceeded $2 million, prompting Ferguson’s manager to email the police chief stating, “Awesome! Thanks!” The town issued 25,000 arrest warrants in 2014 – an average of three per household. Clearly, this indicated a problem of massive proportions.

Perhaps the most concerning practice in Ferguson, besides the shooting of an unarmed young black man, was the culture of fines promoted by law enforcement. The DOJ report found that virtually every cog in the town’s municipal machinery, from traffic cop to city council member, participated in the revenue-gathering scheme.

Police officers were pushed to increase the number of traffic tickets they issued. In fact, some officers who failed to write an average of 28 tickets per month were disciplined. In general, the police competed “to see who could issue the largest number of citations during a single stop.” The winner was a cop who wrote 14 citations in one traffic stop.

According to the DOJ report, “City, police and court officials for years have worked in concert to maximize revenue at every stage of the enforcement process, beginning with how fines and fine enforcement processes are established.... [Such policies focus on] revenue rather than public safety needs.” The report added that Ferguson public officials had “made clear to the police chief and the municipal judge that revenue generation must be a priority in court operations.”

Court fines come from a variety of sources. The Ferguson Municipal Court charged defendants $125 for failure to appear, $50 for a warrant to be executed (plus 56 cents per mile the police drive to serve the warrant), and $30 to $60 per night in jail. Those fines are often combined, resulting in substantial bills. In 2013, the average fine imposed in Ferguson due to a guilty verdict was $275.

A contributing factor to such high fines was that the Municipal Court is only in session three days each month. As such, if a defendant can’t afford bail they must pay to stay in jail until the next court session – which also creates an incentive for defendants to plead guilty in order to speed their release.

Further, courts have taken other measures seemingly intended to ensure defendants incur more fines. According to ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-based watchdog group, municipal court judges often start hearing cases up to 30 minutes prior to their scheduled time and lock the doors five minutes after, forcing defendants to miss court dates and thereby increasing fine revenue.

Beyond criminal matters, Ferguson officials charged residents $102 for a parking fine whereas similar fines in other towns often ranged from $5 to $100. While a neighboring city had a $5 fine for “weeds/tall grass,” the fine in Ferguson was $77 to $102. Other finable offenses included “manner of walking” (95 percent of such tickets were issued to blacks), “failure to obey” (89 percent were issued to blacks) and “failure to comply” (94 percent were issued to blacks). Many civil rights activists accused Ferguson officials of racially-biased policing.

Following the DOJ’s investigation and report, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed into law two pieces of reform legislation, passed in 2015 and 2016, respectively, with the intent of curbing revenue-driven law enforcement tactics.

The 2015 law reduced the amount of revenue a city government could raise from traffic fines and court fees from 30 to 20 percent – except in St. Louis County, where the total revenue derived from those sources was capped at 12.5 percent. The 2016 law placed restrictions on fines for violations of municipal ordinances, such as those related to pets and lawn care.

In March 2016, following a legal challenge by several St. Louis County cities, a state court judge held that the statutory limitation on fines and fee revenue specific to St. Louis County was unconstitutional. In response, Governor Nixon said he would work with the legislature to implement revised reforms.

A report issued by Better Together St. Louis in October 2014 found that 14 towns within St. Louis County derived their largest source of revenue through court fines and fees. The report identified another 29 city governments within the county that derived more than 12.5 percent of their revenue from those sources.

During the time that the 12.5 percent statutory limit on fine and fee revenue was in effect, at least two St. Louis County municipalities, Charlack and Wellston, were forced to close their small police departments.

Charlack, with a population of 1,300, had earned a reputation as a speed trap, drawing roughly 29 percent of its total revenue from fines and fees levied on motorists traveling along a stretch of Interstate 170 near the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Similarly, Wellston has a population of 2,300 and occupies an area of less than one square mile. Its police department, with 17 patrol officers, was, arguably, not needed – though it provided the city with 12.2 percent of its total revenue, obtained through various fines and court costs.

Once additional reforms are implemented, Ferguson and other municipalities in St. Louis County will have to learn how to operate without exacting a large portion of their revenue from fines, fees and related criminal justice costs imposed on mostly minority and poor residents.

Sources: Associated Press, www.motherjones.com, www.cnn.com, www.stltoday.com, www.library.municode.com, www.governing.com, www.startribune.com.

This article originally appeared in Prison Legal News on December 8, 2016.