Ferguson’s new municipal court judge, Judge Donald McCullin, issued an order Monday to withdraw all arrest warrants issued before the end of last year. The order may affect thousands of people in Ferguson who have racked up exorbitant debt for traffic violations or other minor offenses.
McCullin also reinstated all driver’s licenses suspended solely because the driver failed to appear in court or pay a fine. Suspended license penalties tend to trap poor people into cycles of debt, as they have little choice but to continue driving to work and risk being arrested for driving with a suspended license.
The defendants whose warrants have been withdrawn will be given new court dates. Pretrial release conditions will also change, the judge said. Rather than jail people, the court will come up with alternative payment plans, commute fines for people who can’t afford them, or require community service.
“These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the Court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in Court, and giving many residents a fresh start,” said McCullin. “Many individuals whose license has been suspended will be able to obtain them and take advantage of the benefits of being able to drive. Moreover, defendants will not be disadvantaged in being afforded pre-trial release because of the inability to make bond.”
Soon after the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Ferguson’s predatory system of fining the poor came to light. A report from ArchCity Defenders estimated that there were an average of three outstanding warrants in every household in Ferguson.
A Justice Department report that followed widespread protests revealed the city relied on its police force to raise revenue, even explicitly asking the police chief to step up traffic enforcement for financial reasons.
As McCullin’s orders indicate, the municipal court has undergone massive reforms since the DOJ report was released. Ferguson’s former municipal judge, Ronald Brockmeyer, was ousted after the report accused him of operating his court like an ATM for the city, extracting huge sums from impoverished people while fixing similar traffic tickets for himself and his friends.
Roy Richter, the appellate judge who briefly replaced Brockmeyer in March, immediately capped the amount a person can be charged in traffic or court fees. McCullin took over the municipal court in June.
The city council has reportedly approved McCullin’s plan, as it’s in line with recent legislation to change predatory court practices. Gov. Jay Nixon (D-MO) signed a law in July to limit municipal fines and fees and restrict the amount of general revenue a municipality can raise from traffic or court fines. The law also banned jail time as a penalty for traffic offenses.
But the city has continued to pump out arrest warrants this year, issuing around 2,300 warrants as of August, according to CNN’s estimate. Most of the warrants were for minor offenses like having an expired vehicle registration, parking incorrectly, playing loud music, or even dancing in the streets.