[NOTE: Certain names have been changed to protect confidentiality–denoted by *]
Outside the courthouse in Pine Lawn, Missouri, the unsteady sidewalk is coated in cold rain, and fog blurs the lights of nearby industrial buildings. The court entrance is brightly lit beneath a green awning, as uniformed cops cluster near the glass door. Last year, Pine Lawn depended on court fines and fees to make up 48.12% of its general operating budget. The small municipality takes up just 0.6 square miles in North St. Louis County, and almost a third of its citizens live below the poverty line. State law dictates that a municipality cannot use court fines and fees to fund more than 30% of its yearly budget, but in 2013, 21 county municipalities funded over 20% of their budget in this way. According to a recent study by Better Together, a local nonprofit collecting economic data about the St. Louis region, eight municipalities illegally exceeded the 30% cap.
Saint Louis University (SLU) Law School Professor Patricia Harrison routinely works with low-income citizens charged with municipal court violations. She has a calm demeanor that belies the number of clients she typically juggles, with the help of SLU students and faculty. One of her cases involved a 21-year-old woman named Ashley*, who missed her court date after getting a speeding ticket in Chesterfield — failure to appear in court triggers an arrest warrant. In Harrison’s experience, clients often miss court dates because they are afraid they might get arrested if they can’t afford to pay a fine, and are unaware that they might have other payment options. After missing her court hearing, Ashley was arrested and held in jail for nine days until she found someone to post her bond. “Sitting in jail for nine days because you sped? How is that justifiable because she didn’t pay a speeding ticket?” says Harrison. “Some people might not agree with me. They might say, ‘If you do the crime, you’ve got to do the time.’ But it’s a speeding ticket.”
On one of the two Thursdays in December when Pine Lawn holds court, it is not yet 6 p.m., and already dark. Inside, the courtroom is strangely empty tonight — a handful of defendants sit on a long wooden bench that resembles a church pew, wrapped in puffy winter coats. “I’m surprised it’s not busy. It usually is packed,” one cop says, bemused, eyeglasses perched on top of his head and his hair shorn into a tight buzzcut. He walks away to talk to another officer, swapping stories about respiratory infections. A small artificial Christmas tree sits beside them, strung with lights but unplugged. According to the 2010 census, Pine Lawn has a population of 3,275 — a Facebook group called “Dissolve City of Pine Lawn Police Department” currently has 9,949 likes, over three times the city’s population.
Court runs methodically. Defendants approach the bench as each case is called, leaving after a few minutes to pay outside the courtroom doors. Two officers wait near the bench, exchanging candy and laughing with the judge, a mild-mannered, middle-aged man. When a defendant approaches, the officers snap to attention, flanking him with serious stares. When one young man approaches, slouched with his hands in his pockets, one of the officers curtly motions for him to remove his hands from his pockets. Another young man approaches the bench a few minutes later, dressed in a crisp white button-down cinched tightly with a black vest. “Thank you for dressing up,” the judge says. “You’re the best dressed person here.” Soon the room is almost empty except for cops and court personnel. An ornate, faux-weathered clock hangs on the wall — the time marks a few minutes before 6:30.
Outside, another cop hangs close to the door. His breath turns to mist in the cold, and he has pulled a wooly black cap tightly over his head. He says the court is usually much busier — there will be a lot of warrants issued tonight. “This time of year, people choose between paying their traffic fines and buying a Christmas present for their kid. They don’t know the judge will work with them.” He shakes his head. After a pause, he says firmly, “Education is key!”
Professor Patricia Harrison says that demand for the SLU Legal Clinics’ pro bono services far outpaces its ability to take on cases. Of the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, 80 have their own court, each with their own municipal ordinances. Settling into a conference room chair, she adjusts the vibrant blue scarf draped over her shoulders. As director of the school’s Child and Family Advocacy Clinic, Harrison typically works with teenagers and young adults, many of whom are homeless. “The kids I represent, they’re not good advocates for themselves,” she says. “They don’t come to court the way you should come to court in the judge’s eyes.”
Defendants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer inevitably leave court with steeper penalties than those who can. “That’s the difference between having money and not having money in the court system,” she says. Harrison explains that she can often get her clients’ speeding tickets reduced to a littering charge, a less severe violation that won’t incur points on their license or raise their insurance costs.
Refusing to show up for court guarantees an outstanding warrant, but many defendants aren’t aware of the options available to them if they can’t afford to pay a ticket, and believe if they show up and can’t pay, they’ll immediately be arrested. While facilitating informational sessions to educate local citizens about their legal rights, Gina Savoie, a third-year law student who works with Harrison, has been surprised by what many defendants don’t know about court proceedings: they aren’t required to plead guilty, can request time to find a lawyer, and can ask the judge for community service or a payment plan in lieu of paying the full amount of their fine on that day. However, courts vary across municipalities in their willingness to negotiate with defendants. Many courts allow people to pay off their fine incrementally, but they can be threatened with a warrant for their arrest if they don’t have the minimum amount requested.
Originally from New Jersey, Savoie has been shocked by some of her dealings with St. Louis’ court system. Officials in several municipalities have told her over the phone that her clients will be sent to jail if they can’t afford to make a payment. “They will tell you things that I’m pretty sure are illegal,” she says. “As law students and lawyers, we get a certain amount of automatic credibility when we call the courts … when our clients go on their own, they’re so helpless in some ways.”
Some of Harrison’s clients who can’t afford to pay a fine have told her that the judge forbade them from leaving the courtroom. They allow defendants to use the phone, telling them to call friends and family until they find someone who can lend them the money. The worst of this intimidation is targeted at defendants who can’t afford to hire a lawyer, so no suit has been filed to dispute it. “I don’t think you can throw someone in jail for not having the money,” she says. “If I were there and it were my client, I would stand up and say ‘This is not OK,’ and then I would appeal.”
The duty of overseeing municipal courts ultimately falls to the presiding judge of the judicial circuit that contains them — in the case of St. Louis County, Presiding Judge Maura McShane. The sheer number of municipalities in the county, however, makes it difficult to keep tabs on the detailed workings of each court, and the task of reporting any wrongdoing largely falls on the courts themselves. Courts are required to notify the Missouri Department of Revenue if they collect revenue in excess of the state-mandated 30% cap from fines and fees. In its recent study, however, Better Together could not find any documented instance of a municipality turning over their excess revenue.
Earlier this year two of Harrison’s colleagues at SLU, in partnership with lawyers from ArchCity Defenders, filed suit against the municipality of Bel Ridge. They argued that the court lost its authority to hear cases after failing to submit a financial statement to the state in the summer, as the law requires — as of now, the lawsuit is still in process. Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich also recently announced he would be auditing 10 or more municipal courts in the coming year.
“It is the citizens that live in the community that this is impacting,” says Harrison. Rather than hiring more personnel to carry out aggressive ticketing, she suggests that municipal courts focus on rehabilitating and educating offenders. “If they really were concerned about their citizens and making their communities safer, they would put some of that money towards those types of programs … there are chronic problems that lead people to get caught up in the municipal court system.”
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