ST. LOUIS COUNTY, MISSOURI — In 2004, Sean Bailey recalls, he was driving through the streets of St. Louis County en route to a party, when he saw a familiar black-and-white car out of the corner of his eye. He reached for his phone to warn the friend he was following to slow down, but it was too late; the cop blared his siren and pulled up behind him. Bailey, who had a warrant stemming from a failure to appear in court for unpaid traffic tickets, felt a familiar pang of anxiety. He knew exactly what was going to happen next.
“I was like, I’m going to get into this little orange jumpsuit and sit in this cold cell for a couple of days here,” the bespectacled St. Louis, Missouri native recalls, lighting a cigarette and blowing out a thin ribbon of smoke.
The officer ran Bailey’s name and discovered he had a warrant. Bailey was arrested and sent to jail in Florissant, a municipality in northern St. Louis County bordering Ferguson. When Bailey stepped inside his cell, he was greeted with a gust of cold air. It was chilly outside — maybe 20 degrees, he speculates — “and they had the AC blasting.” The interior was grimy, and “there were a lot of guys in there, beating on the cells and calling for [help] and nobody was coming.”
Bailey sits comfortably on the stoop of a red-brick apartment in North St. Louis County while his daughter, who is groggy with a cold, naps inside. The 35-year-old single father is homeless, and for the moment he’s staying in a relative’s place on a noisy street dotted with crumbling corner stores. Since 1995, Bailey estimates he’s been jailed upwards of 20 times throughout St. Louis County — tallying up to more than two months behind bars — for warrants stemming from traffic violations. At least once, he was subject to what some call “riding the circuit” — shuttled to jail in a handful of municipalities back-to-back after the officer who arrested him notified police in other municipalities where he had warrants. Bailey, diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and prone to regular panic attacks, says he once faked a heart attack in his cell just to get medical care.
“A lot of people were locked up with diabetes, high blood pressure, and they weren’t able to get their medicine. I had been locked up for days and I didn’t have my medication,” he pauses. “The paramedics got there and were like ‘he’s not having a heart attack but you might not want to keep him there anymore.’ It’s very stressful.”
In many neighborhoods throughout St. Louis County, however, Bailey’s story is not unique.
Missouri has the second-highest rate of traffic cases per person in the nation, and St. Louis County’s rate is twice as high as Missouri’s, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. According to Brendan Roediger, an assistant professor at St. Louis University School of Law, there are more than 450,000 outstanding warrants in the St. Louis County for municipal cases. In some jurisdictions, the number of warrants well exceeds the number of residents: Country Club Hills, for example, has a population of 1,381 and more than 33,102 active warrants, amounting to a ratio of nearly 24 outstanding warrants per resident. Similarly, Wellston has a population of 2,460 and more than 15,000 outstanding warrants, adding up to a ratio of more than six to one.
The municipal court systems in which Bailey was entangled generate a huge amount of revenue by ticketing people just like him: Calverton Park, where nearly one-quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, collects 66 percent of its general revenue from court fines and fees; Vinita Terrace, where close to 20 percent of residents live under the poverty line, brings home close to 60 percent of its revenue in fines and fees; and Normandy, with 35 percent of its residents living in poverty, collects just north of 40 percent of its revenue in fines and fees.
In 2013, the St. Louis County and City municipal courts acquired more than $61 million in fines and fees. This accounted for almost 50 percent of all fines and fees collected by the municipal courts in the state of Missouri, even though just 22 percent of the state resides in the St. Louis County area. Overall, St. Louis County is 24 percent black and 11 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, but the top 21 municipalities in the area collected one-third of their revenue from court fines and fees. They were 62 percent black on average, with 22 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos
Predatory ticketing practices in some of the county’s majority-poor, black neighborhoods range from the egregious to the Dickensian. Thomas Harvey, one of the co-founders of ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis nonprofit law firm that represents indigent and low-income clients, described a case that has yet to be verified by court and police records, with a client who says she called police to report domestic abuse against her boyfriend and child’s father. When the police arrived at her apartment, she says they ran her license and discovered that she had warrants on unpaid traffic tickets. Instead of arresting her abuser, the woman claims the police arrested her and left her two-year-old child at home, alone, with her boyfriend.
“So why would that woman ever call the police?” Harvey wondered. “If you can’t even call the police when you’re reporting domestic violence because of fear that you’re going to be arrested for a traffic ticket, why would you ever call?”
The issues plaguing many of these municipalities were recently brought to the nation’s attention in a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August. The report outlined systemic racism in the Ferguson Police Department, and concluded that many police officers “appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African American areas, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
The egregious issues exposed in the DOJ report, however, extend far beyond Ferguson’s borders. Harvey said the focus on this particular municipality — as an outrageous example rather than the norm — has become a distraction. “Everybody’s writing about Ferguson, but the reality is there are probably 10 places that are worse.”
Like many residents in St. Louis County, Bailey’s troubles began with a traffic ticket, then spiraled into mounting debt and a warrant after he failed to show up in court. When Bailey couldn’t front the cash for his traffic tickets, which he says totaled to nearly $2,000, he avoided court altogether. Because he missed his court date, a warrant was issued for his arrest, setting off what Bailey calls a “vicious cycle” of debt and imprisonment that took years to break through. Of his numerous stints in jail, he has one enduring memory: “The conditions were inhumane,” he stressed, recalling a cell with blood, urine, and feces caked to the wall. “They have you packed in there like sardines. It’s really disgusting. You wouldn’t put your dog in there.”
St. Louis County is divided into 90 municipalities, each with their own municipal code, police force, and court. Many other comparably sized counties are made up of significantly fewer municipalities and courts: Jackson County, for example, is the second-most populous county in Missouri but contains just 16 municipal courts.
Some of these municipalities are more prosperous than others. According to a report by the Ferguson Commission, there’s an 18-year-difference in life expectancy between people living in two towns just ten miles away from each other: 67 years in the majority-black North St. Louis City, where the median household income is $15,000, as compared with 85 years in Clayton, where nearly 80 percent of the population is white and the median income is $90,000.
“When you have that much fragmentation, you’re less diversified in your source of revenue,” Dave Leipholtz, the director of community-based studies at Better Together, an organization sponsored by the Missouri Council for a Better Economy, noted. Many of the region’s more affluent municipalities rely on their sales tax as a source of revenue and so are less dependent on their municipal courts. “So West County is able to attract all this commerce and retail out there and you have North County that’s really fragmented and there’s not as much retail there,” he explained.
Edmundson, where nearly one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty level, collects almost 35 percent of its general revenue from court fines and fees. Ticketing was such an important part of the town’s income that the mayor distributed a friendly note in some police officers’ paychecks, reminding them: “The tickets that you write do add to the revenue on which the P.D. budget is established and will directly affect pay adjustments at budget time.” (ThinkProgress obtained a copy of the note, which is included below).
Meanwhile, Ferguson is not among the top 20 municipalities in St. Louis County that collect more than 20 percent of their general revenue from court fines and fees. Amid a flood of negative press after the release of the DOJ report, a flurry of Ferguson officials resigned, including Ronald Brockmeyer, (the Ferguson municipal judge who was also a prosecutor in neighboring Florissant, Vinita Park, and Dellwood), Ferguson’s city manager and police chief. The city court clerk was fired over racist emails.
Brockmeyer’s retreat was crowned as a rare victory in a system fraught with unaccountability. But some, including Roediger, worried that the general fixation on Ferguson detracted from a deeper examination of the failures of policing and the municipal court system throughout St. Louis County. “Brockmeyer’s the perfect guy to sort of take the fall for this, but it’s really dangerous to continue to focus on him while 80 other municipalities keep doing the exact same thing,” he observed. “There are ideological clones of him throughout St. Louis County that are preying on poor people every day.”
Harvey shared a similar interpretation. “I’m so tired of people calling me and saying ‘Ferguson Ferguson Ferguson,’” he said. “Because you could fix Ferguson. Ferguson could be the hall of justice. It could be the greatest place ever for poor people and black people to go and be treated well, and that doesn’t do anything for the rest of the region.”
Outside of the spotlight, many nearby towns have some of the exact same problems — including Florissant, the municipality I’m stopping by tonight.
Josh Canavan, a young staff attorney at ArchCity Defenders, greets me in the parking lot outside Florissant’s night court on a drizzly Wednesday evening in March. We step past the cluster of police cars and walk down a path leading us to a side entrance of the building, where a line of cold, frustrated people are waiting to get inside.
After standing in line for a few minutes we shuffle into a building that doesn’t look like a traditional courthouse. In Florissant, court is located in a massive gym; it used to be in an actual courtroom, but the room was small enough that anyone who wasn’t on the docket was barred from entering. Until June, when the presiding judge of the St. Louis County Circuit Court demanded that municipal courts open their doors to the public, this was common practice, the Dispatch reported. Some courts told defendants who showed up with their kids that children weren’t allowed in the building.
After the judge’s order, Florissant moved its court to a gym, which accomplished the goal of allowing everyone inside the courtroom, but makes it impossible to hear the court’s proceedings: the room is huge and the judge has a penchant for muttering. The court now seems to be straddling the line between “open” and “closed.” You can go inside, but you can’t hear anything that’s going on.
Harvey says ArchCity’s clients are often charged with three distinct “poverty crimes,” as they’re sometimes referred to: driving with a suspended license, failure to register a vehicle, and no proof of insurance. Many courts expect fines to be paid in full the night of court, but they do also permit defendants to set up payment plans; others, like Bel-Ridge court, don’t allow them.
If defendants miss court, like Bailey did, a warrant will be issued for their arrest. Defendants arrested for warrants who can’t pay their bonds can spend weeks in jail before they see a judge; no municipalities have court on a daily basis and many meet irregularly. Dellwood court, for example, gathers just once a month.
“I stayed in jail for 31 days in Town and Country,” an older man living in north St. Louis remarked. “By the time they let me out, I lost my apartment, lost my job, everything. All they want is the money. If you don’t have the money, you’re getting locked up. That’s why people hate to go to court. Because we know we’re going to jail.”
Warrants also impact people’s ability to find housing and employment. Federally funded housing programs require warrants to be cleared, as do many job-training programs, said Val Ferlis, a program director at a shelter for homeless women and families in St. Louis County called Room at the Inn. The St. Louis Housing Authority conducts background checks for applicants, and cites any criminal arrest as grounds for rejection.
CREDIT: Andrew Breiner
Ferlis estimated that more than 80 percent of her clients are caught up in this limbo, unable to find housing or a job because of issues related to ticketing and warrants. “If you can’t afford your housing or pay your utility bills, paying a ticket is the last thing on your mind,” she emphasized. “Some of these people come in with five, six, seven outstanding tickets in various municipalities. They’re struggling just to get back into housing…Many of our clients have exhausted everything and they have nowhere else to go.”
Under the Florissant gym’s bright lights, Canavan and the other attorneys in the building wait in their own line near the metal detector, which will eventually lead them to a meeting with the prosecutor to iron out their cases. The line inside the courtroom for defendants is long, snaking around the white-tiled gymnasium walls, under large basketball hoops, and inching outside the door. It maintains that length all evening, until court wraps up several hours later.
Canavan and I shoot a few texts back and forth as he waits his turn. I ask him if the lines for the defendants here are standard. “Very much so,” he replies. “Meat packing plant.”
Florissant is one of three St. Louis County municipal courts highlighted as a “chronic offender” of harmful court practices in a 2014 “Municipal Courts White Paper” published by ArchCity Defenders. According to the paper, fines served as the third-largest source of revenue in the municipality’s budget in 2013, following only utilities and sales taxes. During that time, Florissant issued approximately one warrant for every six residents, collecting roughly a quarter ($695,000) of the court’s total revenue (three million) in warrants.
Like in Ferguson, black residents were routinely targeted: They represent just a quarter of Florissant’s populace but account for nearly 60 percent of Florissant Police Department stops, and the search and arrest rate for black residents was also nearly double the rate for white residents, according to the paper.
There are a few white faces on the docket in Florissant, but the crowd is overwhelmingly black. Outside court, I meet a wizened old woman wearing a robin-blue blazer. She’s trying to figure out what to do with her daughter, who she claims was scooped up recently on her way to work and is now behind bars in Florissant. Her crime? “$8,000 in fines just for traffic tickets,” she scoffs. “All she had was unpaid tickets. She could lose her job and everything.” She rubs her granddaughter’s shoulder, who looks around ten years old and thoroughly exhausted. “I got her daughter here. I don’t know what to do. But I will tell you one thing. Somebody needs to do something about this. They have made a killing here. It’s so sad it almost makes me want to cry. They take our money like that. How’s my daughter going to ever get loose of this?”
Canavan meets her outside and hands her his card. “I can’t promise anything,” he tells her, “but give me a call tomorrow. Let me know you’re the one I talked to.”
It’s likely that the courts in Florissant and elsewhere are conducting themselves more favorably now in light of the DOJ report and overall scrutiny of the courts. “If you came here six months ago, you would have seen things that just boggled the mind,” Harvey asserted. In Bel-Ridge, Roediger said, “they used to cuff people to the radiator.”
Many people who went through the courts remembered lines that wound around the building and stretched down the street for blocks, in searing heat and frigid cold. “Before you used to have to wait and the line would be all the way around the corner,” a woman standing outside Jennings court recollected. “It didn’t matter what the weather was. You’d have to stand outside.”
The courts can also be difficult to navigate. Few municipal court websites post information about the dates and times of night court and many only operate on a part-time basis, which means calls can go unanswered. I was told Bel-Ridge, for example, holds court on Wednesdays, but when I called Wednesday morning to check on the time, I learned that the office was closed. Because no one could answer my questions, I drove to the Bel-Ridge courthouse. The front doors were locked and I lingered in the parking lot for an hour before I saw another person, who walked around the building. I followed her and discovered the night court location — a room in the back of the building that was undetectable from the street.
I ran into similar problems when I called the Florissant court to confirm the date and time of court. The receptionist asked if I was on the docket, and after hearing I was a reporter, she referred me to a different phone number: Boyle Law Firm LLC, the private law office of Florissant’s provisional judge, Dan Boyle, who also works as an attorney in private practice. In St. Louis County, this is common. Municipal court judges are frequently attorneys in private practice. Sometimes they are also county prosecutors. They might serve in numerous jurisdictions; a judge in one municipality could be the prosecutor in another.
This was the case before Brockmeyer resigned from his positions in Ferguson and Florissant. A judge in one municipality and a prosecutor in another, he was the common denominator between the two towns, which are next to each other and together generated millions off their municipal courts in 2013.
I called the number provided for Boyle and the receptionist graciously told me I couldn’t come to court: “We’ve had reporters call and he won’t allow reporters in anymore,” she said firmly. “But I won’t be filming,” I insisted. “I don’t know,” she replied. “He’s not going to be in today” — court was that night — “so I don’t know how to have him call you.”
Harvey wasn’t surprised when he heard this. “That’s a perfect example of what our clients, poor people in this region face,” he pointed out. “If you want to call before court, you’re dealing with somebody who may or may not be able to give you the right answer. The judge isn’t there because the judge is an attorney in private practice. The prosecutor isn’t there because the prosecutor is an attorney in private practice. The only person there is a clerk who may or may not know anything about it and probably frankly shouldn’t be telling you anything about the law. In addition to all the more egregious constitutional violations that are going on, just think of it as a practical matter. This is one of those good illustrations of how the process is the punishment.”
CREDIT: Andrew Breiner
One afternoon before heading to night court, I took a ride down Natural Bridge Road, a main drag in St. Louis County flanked with dried patches of grass and worn buildings, that runs through eight different municipalities in a less than four-mile stretch from Bel-Ridge to Pine Lawn. A drive down this route on Natural Bridge with an expired license plate means you could potentially get pulled over for the same violation in all eight municipalities you pass through. “You cannot live in this region without driving through 10 or 15 municipalities a day,” Harvey said. “And if you live in the poorer places, you drive through more. They’re smaller, denser, and more desperate for this revenue.”
This cuts straight to the core of the problem so many poor people living in the municipalities face. What may have been one ticket in an area with fewer municipalities turns into five; if you don’t go to court, that turns into five warrants. “I got three tickets in the same day for the same thing,” a schoolteacher outside Florissant court commented. “My husband had just died, my car was not registered, and so I got three tickets instead of one.”
According to Clarence Lang, an associate professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Kansas, there’s “a long history in the St. Louis area of localism and fragmentation.” The roots and proliferation of this fragmentation can be traced back to the mid 20th century, a combination of racist public policy and white flight.
In 1970, a black engineer named Adel Allen talked about his experience living in Kirkwood, a majority white St. Louis suburb, at a hearing of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “I don’t think there’s a black man in South St. Louis County that hasn’t been stopped at least once if he’s been here more than two weeks,” he remarked. “There’s an almost automatic suspicion that goes along with being black…An obvious attempt toward emasculation of the black man. I’ve been stopped, searched…and then told after they found nothing that my tail light bulb was burned out, or I should have dimmed my lights, something like that.”
Allen, a college graduate who moved to the St. Louis area in the early 1960s to work at the McDonnell Space Center, couldn’t find any realtors who were willing to sell him a house in the suburbs; his only other options were cramped apartments in the inner city. Finally, Allen convinced a white friend to buy a house for him in Kirkwood, in what was known then as a “straw purchase.” Shortly after Allen moved in, “for sale” signs began popping up throughout the neighborhood. When Allen moved in, the block was home to 30 white families; seven years later, there were just two.
At the time, Allen’s experience was typical. When black families moved to new neighborhoods, real estate agents would often canvas the block and try to convince white homeowners to sell their houses at reduced prices, claiming that black migration would destroy their property values. The same real estate agents would then purchase the properties and resell them to black homeowners, many of whom had fewer housing options, at marked up prices. Some version of this process likely took place when Allen moved to Kirkwood.
Whites began moving out of St. Louis in the ‘30s, and a combination of discriminatory public policy and white flight kept black and white neighborhoods segregated. In 1948, the Supreme Court struck down the use of race restrictive deeds and covenants, so white residents looked for other ways to shut out black homeowners, enacting exclusionary zoning laws that prohibited the construction of low-income housing but allowed for single-family homes.
“What’s really remarkable about this setting is that, until quite recently Missouri probably had the least stringent regulations on what it took to create a new town,” said Colin Gordon, a history professor at the University of Iowa and author of the book Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City.
States set the rules for municipal incorporation, and before regulations imposed on incorporation in the late ‘70s, Missouri basically had none. “If you had six signatures and six houses, you could call yourself a town,” Gordon explained. This made it easy to create new towns with the explicit goal of shutting groups of people out.
“The principal reason to have a town, to have a corporate status, is to win the right to zone,” Gordon continued. “And for most of the 20th century, the ability to zone was inextricably linked to the motive to segregate the population. That’s why people wanted to zone. And there are some egregious examples of this in St. Louis County, where municipalities incorporated and zoned in a matter of weeks just to kill a multi-family housing project or something like that.”
The racial history of St. Louis County is not exceptional; similar policies and segregationist practices existed in almost every major urban center in the country at the time. But it is central to understanding the number of municipalities in that region, and as an extension, why so many people there are dealing with unsustainable court fines and fees.
Today, a large number of black residents in greater St. Louis live in North County, where the legacy of racist public policy, white flight, and the proliferation of municipalities endures through predatory ticketing and warrants.
“Jennings is kryptonite bad,” the grandmother sitting outside Florissant declares. “They’re worse than Ferguson!”
Night court there is housed in a considerably smaller venue than Florissant’s gym. Dozens of people file through two grey doors on the side of the small red brick courthouse and quietly line up along the wall, waiting for their cases to be called. The courtroom’s interior is what you might imagine: Wooden benches, white walls, and harsh lights.
Judge John Duepner, a man with a grey beard and glasses, calls defendants up one by one; they step up to handle their fines. The whole process can be excruciatingly long. “Last time I came at 6 I didn’t get out until 11,” says a woman named Charmaine, who was in court to pay off fines after she was pulled over and ticketed for having no insurance. She sparks a cigarette and takes a long drag. “It’s horrible.”
If you have the resources to hire an attorney and pay your fees, meanwhile, the process isn’t quite so horrible. Entering his or her appearance on your behalf, the attorney will submit a letter to the prosecutor and request a “recommendation for disposition.” Once fines and court costs are paid, the prosecuting attorney will recommend that moving violations, like speeding tickets, be changed to non-moving violations, like excessive vehicle noise.
That part of the process — changing the moving violation to a non-moving violation — is key. Missouri operates on a point system, and your license will be suspended or revoked if you tally up a certain number of points (some moving violations can tack on more points). License suspension is a big problem for many St. Louis County residents; thanks to state law, a failure to appear in court means an automatic license suspension. St. Louis has a flimsy public transportation system, so people with suspended licenses still depend on driving to get to and from work, and often continue to drive even if they are not legally permitted to do so, risking getting pulled over and slapped with more fines and fees.
Charmaine says this used to happen all the time outside Jennings court. Drivers who came to court to handle warrants for driving with suspended licenses “used to leave this courtroom, and before you even pulled out of the lot [the police] got you.”
Some of the defendants in Jennings can hardly afford to pay off their tickets, much less front the cost of an attorney. For speeding tickets alone, attorneys can be paid around $50, in addition to the fines collected by the municipality. “I lost my job and couldn’t afford to pay them,” says Charmaine, who owed upwards of $600 dollars. “I have a family and I had to take care of them. I had to make a decision.”
Few municipalities provide lawyers for defendants who can’t afford counsel, which means that unrepresented defendants regularly enter guilty pleas without knowing that they can consult with a lawyer. Though the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1983 that a state may not “imprison a person solely because he lacked the resources to pay [fines or restitutions],” and Missouri law entitles defendants to a hearing to determine their ability to pay, ArchCity and others say that rarely happens. “Our goal is that poor people don’t need lawyers to get treated like human beings,” Harvey said. “We have accepted that it’s okay to lock up poor people in a cage, especially if they’re from marginalized communities.”
Though the Jennings courtroom is crowded, there’s only one white man in the room on the docket. I stop him as he exits the building and ask him what he thinks of the court. “I think it’s racist as hell,” the man, whose name is Antonio, fumes. “I asked the lady at the front desk why is everyone who’s working there white and everyone who’s got a ticket black?”
Charmaine chimes in. “If you noticed, it’s majority black. It’s never a mixed crowd. When you’re black you can only have a certain amount of people in your car…It really is a color thing. Half of the people here are barely making it. We can’t afford it.”
Antonio nods and points at Charmaine. “I feel like if she stepped up there for an insurance ticket, her fine’s going to be different than my fine. It happens all the time. They look at you and decide.”
Brendan Roediger, the professor at St. Louis University School of Law, said when he first started visiting the night courts throughout St. Louis County, he was struck by what he saw and heard. “I was in Illinois before I did this and I had never seen a system like this.” Roediger recalled one night in St. Ann with Judge Sean O’Hagan, who is also a prosecutor at the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office. “I watched the confined docket. People’s bonds were set at $100 or $200 and he kept saying to people, ‘What’s the matter? Nobody loves you? You can’t come up with $200? Nobody loves you enough to bring $200?’”
Judge O’Hagan, a dour, grey-haired man, seemed to be in a state of constant exasperation the night I stopped by night court in St. Ann. When one woman acknowledged she had forgotten to bring some paperwork O’Hagan needed, he snapped: “You haven’t done anything right in this, have you?”
That night, the prosecuting attorney at St. Ann was Keith Cheung. Cheung works at Curtis, Heinz, Garrett & O’Keefe, a St. Louis County law firm whose lawyers serve as the prosecutors and judges in upwards of 20 municipalities. Cheung wears multiple hats: He’s the judge in one municipality and the prosecutor in numerous others (Frontenac, Normandy, and St. Ann). One source said he was positioned to become “the new Brockmeyer.”
According to a recent report by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in 2006, he received an email from Wes Dalton, who at the time was a circuit court judge in Warren County, imploring him to scrub the case of an 18-year-old girl who had been written up for alcohol possession.
“Her Dad is Wayne Baker (owner of Warrenton Oil and a —-load of other stuff),” Dalton wrote. “Can we make this one go away??? By the way, we’re hooked up for golf at Porto Cima at the Conference!!! (is no cost okay???)!!”
Unlike Charmaine and Antonio, Baker’s daughter got off scot-free.
People who live in neighborhoods impacted by violence want the police to protect them from violence, not to arrest them for driving while suspended for unpaid traffic tickets. Many of the people interviewed for this piece expressed doubt that the police in their neighborhoods are there to help them with public safety; rather, they believe that officers are there to exploit them for revenue, and so they tailor their lives accordingly. Some stop driving altogether, tacking on hours to their daily commutes. Others choose the streets, and people they’re driving with, carefully.
“If you go down Natural Bridge and are in Pine Lawn, Jennings, Ferguson, Florissant, if you’re black you’ll take your hat off,” Sean Bailey sighed. “You’re automatically in a gang if you’re wearing a Cardinals cap. When the police get behind you, they’re running your plates whether you’re doing something or not. Better make sure you’re in a car that’s legit.”
Harvey and others suggest abolishing the municipal courts as the best way to reform the system. They say the legislature and the Missouri Supreme Court have the power to do so, and could transfer all municipal cases to St. Louis County Circuit Court. “I think it’s totally feasible,” Harvey speculated. “The way people are talking about this… I think we’re close.”
Still, change could be a long time coming. In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Frank J. Vatterott, a municipal judge in Overland who also heads the Municipal Court Improvement Committee, remarked that abolition “isn’t going to happen.”
“There is nothing wrong with the courts in Maryland Heights or Creve Coeur or Richmond Heights. Those courts work very well. Those cities should have the right to enforce their ordinances,” he added.
Though some modest reforms have been enacted, there is little consensus on the best way to reform the system. In addition to abolishing the courts, some have endorsed municipal consolidation; others, like Monica Huddleston, the mayor of the tiny St. Louis County municipality Greendale, oppose it. “When people say to us, ‘You need to disincorporate because there are too many of you,’ my answer to that is: Excuse me but these folks here pay to live here,” she said. “They have paid the taxes, they voted me into office and the representatives that they have into office to continue this style of living. So if we disincorporate we no longer would have that quality of life. And that’s unacceptable to us.”
She noted that all of the county’s municipalities are grouped together with the bad offenders, including the ones who don’t exploit their residents. “We are all painted with the same brush. And the few [municipalities] who do not do the right thing, that is not the norm,” she insisted. “The norm is not for people to be mistreated and racially profiled. Most of our courts are doing the right thing.”
Until change does come about, however, Bailey and many other St. Louis County residents will continue to tailor their lives around the expectation that they will be pulled over and ticketed. Bailey now has a part-time job at a restaurant and has since paid off all of his tickets, but he still can’t shake the ominous feeling that an officer might follow him every time he sits behind the wheel.
“Even after I got all my warrants cleared I still tense up when I see [the police],” he says. “It’s like, wait a minute I’m not doing anything wrong! But there’s a possibility that they will stop and mess with you. You see them behind you…” he trails off, “and you know that you’re rolling dice.”