Last night, I read a rather long piece from the Washington Post that detailed how different municipalities in the St. Louis County area basically used their residents to fund the numerous local cities. This isn’t done the traditional way with property taxes and such, it’s more along the lines of pulling people over for insignificant stuff and citing the crap out of them to the point where they end up lashing out like we saw in Ferguson. The numbers are mind-blowing to me, and I had to stop several times to re-read things just to make sure I was actually reading what I did.
In addition, this piece also told the personal stories of people who have gotten caught up in the traps set by these municipalities. You can read and follow Nicole Bolden’s arrest saga where she started off in an accident and ended up spending several weeks in jail over outstanding warrants. From the accident scene, she was transferred to three different jails in three different cities for outstanding warrants for traffic offenses and such. This story also tells of police and court interactions that have followed Antonio Morgan over the past few years.
The article comes because of a paper put together by a group called ArchCity Defenders, and they put out a White Paper detailing the issues with municipal courts in the St. Louis area. Here’s some of the findings that were reported in the WaPo story.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, blacks make up less than eight percent of the Florissant police force. The judge and both prosecutors are white. In nearly all the towns in St. Louis County, the prosecutors and judges in these courts are part-time positions, and are not elected, but appointed by the mayor, town council, or city manager. According to a recent white paper published by the ArchCity Defenders, the chief prosecutor in Florissant Municipal Court makes $56,060 per year. It’s a position that requires him to work 12 court sessions per year, at about three hours per session. The Florissant prosecutor is Ronald Brockmeyer, who also has a criminal defense practice in St. Charles County, and who is also the chief municipal prosecutor for the towns of Vinita Park and Dellwood. He is also the judge – yes, the judge — in both Ferguson and Breckenridge Hills. Brockmeyer isn’t alone: Several other attorneys serve as prosecutor in one town and judge in another. And at least one St. Louis County assistant district attorney is also a municipal court judge.
So, a private attorney can do his job with his law firm, be a part-time prosecutor in some towns, a judge in some other local town, and this is all legal under Missouri law. Basically, you end up with a situation where the prosecutors and judges are all either working for the same law firm or they’re good friends with each other. That kind of set-up appears ripe for a conflict-of-interest, however, it’s all perfectly legal and the towns are taking full advantage of it. How much of an advantage you ask?
Florissant is one of the larger towns in the county, with a population of about 52,000. It’s also a bit more affluent, which an average household income above the state average, although its employment rate is slightly lower. Last year the town issued 29,072 tickets for traffic offenses. Florissant collected about $3 million in fines and court costs in fiscal year 2013, about 13 percent of its 2013 revenue. As of June of last year, Florissant’s municipal court also held more than 11,000 outstanding arrest warrants.
For comparison, consider Lee’s Summit, a suburb of Kansas City in Jackson County with a population of 92,000. Yet despite being nearly twice Florissant’s size, in 2013 Lee’s Summit issued a third as many traffic tickets (9,651), and collected less than half as much revenue from its municipal court ($1.44 million) as Florissant. As of June of last year, Lee’s Summit held 2,872 outstanding arrest warrants, only one fourth as many as Florissant.
Incidentally, Beverly Hills, Missouri has a population of 571. Its City Hall and police station share a building with a pharmacy. Yet in 2013, the town handed out 3,250 traffic tickets, and issued another 1,085 citations for violations of non-traffic ordinances. Total revenue generated by the town’s municipal court: $221,164, or $387 for each of its residents.
Today, Bel-Ridge has about 2,700 people, 83 percent of whom are black, and 42 percent of whom live below the poverty line. In 2013 the town’s municipal court handled 7,706 traffic citations and issued 1,723 arrest warrants. As the ArchCity Defenders report in their white paper, the town estimates that in 2014, “it will collect $450,000 in fine revenue–or, an average of about $450 per Bel-Ridge household — making municipal court fines the largest single source of revenue in the budget.”
Reading this had me wondering where is the Taxed Enough Already people? Why are they not there in St. Louis County protesting on behalf of those who are being fleeced by the local governments? This is the perfect opportunity for them to put their rhetoric to use. This is a perfect case of government trampling over people who are incapable of defending themselves. The group from ArchCity Defenders are working at helping them, but the problem is so widespread that I doubt they have the manpower to do it alone.
Reading the stories presented, these are hard-working people who are being taken advantage of. There are probably some who deserve to be locked up or ticketed. That’s not the problem. The problem is when a city or town is using tickets and warrants to fund their budget. Nobody should have to live under those conditions, and Americans should be highly pissed that some of us are. Bless those who take the time and put forth the effort to assist those who really need the help. If I were a lawyer, I’d have no problem with assisting ArchCity Defenders to do what they do.