Lawyers Ask Ferguson Mayor to Grant Amnesty for Nonviolent Warrants, Fines

Categories: Michael Brown

hands_up_sl.jpg
Ray Downs
One common complaint among Ferguson protesters: unfair municipal fines.
At the heart of discussions over the racial divide in Ferguson is the high number of tickets and warrants issued to the city's black residents. To help alleviate some of that tension, four St. Louis attorneys are asking Ferguson mayor James Knowles to grant amnesty to the thousands of nonviolent bench warrants currently on the city's court docket.

In a letter to Mayor Knowles, Saint Louis University law professors John Ammann, Stephen Hanlon, Brendan Roedinger, as well as ArchCity Defenders' Thomas Harvey ask that the fines and warrants be forgiven as a way to create a "fresh start" toward community reconciliation.

"The City of Ferguson has more warrants than residents," the letter states. "Most of these warrants are from unpaid fines for nonviolent offenses. For many young people, these warrants act as a barrier to employment and housing. Just as importantly, the psychological trauma of spending each day subject to arrest and incarceration is debilitating."

The letter goes on to urge Knowles to take the following actions:


- Remit all outstanding fines from non-violent offenses in their entirety and cancel any warrants associated with those offenses.

- Pardon all pending unassessed cases alleging non-violent offenses and recall any warrants associated with those cases.

"We think this will have a symbolic effect, as well as a practical effect," Ammann, a long-time professor at SLU, tells Daily RFT. "Symbolically, it's an act of reconciliation with the minority community. And practically, it will help those with outstanding warrants be a part of the community."

See also: St. Louis' Traffic Ticket Problem Screws Over Poor People - These Guys Want to Help

As an example, Ammann points out that city officials claim they want to recruit more black people to be on the police force. But with the large number of warrants -- more than 40,000 in Ferguson, a city with a population of about 21,000 -- many are excluded from the start.

In addition, having warrants can prohibit a person from getting accepted into job-training programs. Harvey explains that the risk of getting arrested in the middle of a program makes many training providers reluctant to invest in that student.

"If you have warrants, you can be arrested at any time, and the training is wasted," he says.

The municipal court system is a common grievance among Ferguson protesters. Many told Daily RFT over the past two weeks that they felt harassed and targeted by police who issue fines, which then turn intro warrants -- and possible jail time -- if they go unpaid.

See also: Police Ease Up On Ferguson Protesters, But Reasons for Protest Not Forgotten

Below is a graphic showing the cities with the highest warrant-to-ratio population:

warrant_graphic.jpg

Back in April Riverfront Times pointed out the disparity among municipal fines in cities with different race and economic demographics.

Pine Lawn is 96 percent black, and its per capita income a measly $13,000. In 2013 the city collected more than $1.7 million in fines and court fees. That same year, the affluent west-county suburb of Chesterfield, with a population of 47,000 (about fifteen times bigger than Pine Lawn) and a per capita income of $50,000, collected just $1.2 million from municipal fines, according to statistics compiled by the state.

Several other north-county municipalities with high populations of African Americans also have similarly high warrant-to-population ratios as Pine Lawn. Country Club Hills, with a population of only 1,274, issued 2,000 municipal warrants last year and has more than 33,000 outstanding. Over 90 percent of Country Club Hills' residents are black and they have a per capita income of under $14,000. The same is true in nearby Wellston, a city that's 97 percent black and has a per capita income of less than $12,000. Last year its municipal court issued more warrants than the city has residents -- 3,883 new warrants compared with a population of 2,300.

In light of recent events in Ferguson, the issue is now getting national attention.

"A lot of our clients believe that the courts are just about money, not about public safety," says Harvey, whose nonprofit group ArchCity Defenders represents clients deeply impacted by municipal fines and warrants. The group recently put out a white paper exploring the problems associated with municipal court fines.

He continues: "One of the advantages of amnesty is it's a good first step towards healing things with the community. These warrants wreak havoc on people's lives, they're not about public safety, and our clients believe there's a motivation to give tickets is based on race and poverty."

The attorneys plan on making their case for amnesty at Ferguson's city council meeting Tuesday night. Afterward, they hope more municipalities will consider a blanket amnesty program.

"It's a long-term project," says Ammann. "We'll start with Ferguson and continue onto other municipalities."

Follow Ray Downs on Twitter:

E-mail him at Ray.Downs@RiverfrontTimes.com.

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487 comments
conjurewoman1
conjurewoman1

Might have already commented on this, but I hope Arch City Defenders and the DOJ (and RFT if so inclined) will also look into the actual fees paid by black people for tickets and warrants.  It seems-- and I am still trying to get confirmation of this, a copy of a receipt that I can forward to lawyers and press -- that often there are "extra charges" tagged on these warrants-- stuff I've never seen in mostly white counties or on white people's tickets-- stuff like "Medicaid fee" "uniform charge" "administrative fee".  Little amounts, less than $15.  And people pay them because they just want to get rid of the warrant, but the little amounts add up and are tacked on in addition to the fines.
It might be easier for a member of the press or DOJ to get a copy then for me.  ("Don't write about this on your blog, I don't want to get in trouble again." etc)

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF @bfwriter doesn't go far enough. The key is in many communities white cops from outside of the community fund high salaries and...

linwoodsinspired
linwoodsinspired

Thank you for this article. The situation with the issuing of tickets and warrants in these small municipalities within St. Louis County is an going problem. In my opinion, this is all about generating revenue for the towns. And based upon the high percentage number of tickets issued in these towns towards a disproportionate number of African Americans, they appear to be the favorite group to target to generate revenue generated from tickets, court fees and warrants. I can appreciate what the lawyers are proposing to begin the healing process in Ferguson.

@lnwoods 

talljuan
talljuan

I am sick reading all these hateful comments.  I believe the lawyers are are the heart and crux of an our ongoing big problem in the country. Blacks have seldom been treated fairly and the poorer you are, white or black, the less influence you have. 

No money or access right or wrong  jail awaits.  The resentment has been building for decades.  Fairness for whom?

talljuan
talljuan

I am sick reading these hateful comments.  I believe the lawyers are at the crux and heart of our big county- wide racial problem.  Blacks have seldom been treated fairly.

Fifty years since civil rigrts and it is only slightly better.  The poor who have no recouse have been fodder for arrest.  Thei resentment has been brewing for decades.  Please support fairness and respect for each other.

Nancy Mathis

Jessica Gable
Jessica Gable

Well this is just absurd. What's happened in Ferguson has nothing to do with people's past crimes. Ridiculous.

C_M_A14
C_M_A14

@kgosztola @YourAnonNews and suing them for $200 mil. Considering the majority of arrest were non ferguson residents, who gets the money?

Misti_Nyp
Misti_Nyp

@AnonyOps need to get rid of the entire police force, need an attitude change by cops and dont shoit to kill. Shoot in the knee

TyroneBrown
TyroneBrown

Add unpaid child support amnesty, FREE EBT cards, a big screen TV and a bag of Doritos to the demands ...........

Oh, and I want some new Nike tennis shoes autographed by Michael Jordan and a new BMW too, 20" rims .......


Uriah Miles
Uriah Miles

Lol! Listen to these fools! I find it funny how some people expect African American to give a fuck after what was done to my ancestors!!!!

Anthony Cusumano
Anthony Cusumano

Ferguson is the new Kinloch. History has a way of repeating itself.

Anthony Cusumano
Anthony Cusumano

They have used tactics like this before. "Come in and get your warrants absolved, and a free gift too"!

Anthony Cusumano
Anthony Cusumano

I wonder if that woud solve the problem of future violations????

Anthony Cusumano
Anthony Cusumano

There will soon be an amnesty in place, it is called, "Socialism".

Anthony Cusumano
Anthony Cusumano

Jesus lived in such a town as this. The Romans ruled with a fist of iron and the Jewish leaders extorted the wealth of the poor. Jesus was crucified trying to teach the people how to live in peace. The people were ignorant of the truth right before them. Nothing has changed has it.

Jessice Lee Mullarkey
Jessice Lee Mullarkey

o yea? Should we let all the nonviolent criminals out of jail now too? You can't make a rule for some that doesn't apply to all. Talk about causing an urising. shit

Maria Villa Mata
Maria Villa Mata

Why is it that everytime something happens with them they call out the race card its BS no one owes you shit you already sit on your asses and collect welfare how about get up get a job and stop complaining. Everyone else works and if your gonna be a criminal or break the law then do you time and thats that.

Cindy Hickerson
Cindy Hickerson

This will make them worse off...man stupid stupid liberals and lawyers.

Troy Mercer
Troy Mercer

More warrants than residents? That should tell ya something about that city and its residents right there.

Terry Horvath
Terry Horvath

All of these warrants were issued AFTER the alleged criminal failed to appear for a court date or pay a fine. They were offered the opportunity to appear and defend themselves against whatever the allegation was. Instead of amnesty, I suggest they set up roadblocks and do a warrant check for every person passing through regardless of their color and arrest EVERYONE who has an outstanding warrant.

Kate Warren
Kate Warren

Right, we can't do this because of that so we need this to happen? Ok, how are they NOT afraid of being arrested every other day of the year? They are out looting and rioting with impunity and not afraid of arrest during this disturbance so what is different NOW? How many would seek legal employment once this is done? Not many probably or they would have paid the fines. done the 3 days in jail, wash trolleys. pickup trash like all other nv offenders do. Can't go to school as this will be wasted? Like school/trade schools are now? Defaults on school programs and retraining are rampant already. Government is already training people who won't seek employment, so what will be gained by amnesty? Less rioting and threats? Nah!

Bill Voss
Bill Voss

If you look at the other surrounding municipalities, they have the same amount of warrants as well. Many of them a staffed by African American police officers. Hmmm I don't understand the logic behind this other than having an opportunity for more minority police officers??

Roberta Bebko
Roberta Bebko

Who would want to be out in your backyard during those riots and protests? Gives me something to be thankful for...that I don't live there!

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF @bfwriter benefits by maintaining a lock on the PD of poor community with no political clout, keeping residents out of the force...

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF @bfwriter probably better than the community & I'd be surprised if they didn't have a range of benefits that most residents don't.

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF @bfwriter ...and then levying fines at every opportunity to generate the revenue to pay for this system of oppression. Residents...

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF the perverse incentive remains even if they're badly paid. They keep their jobs by fining people enough to pay the taxes for them.

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF @bfwriter have absolutely no recourse and the police is able to act without fear of consequences of even most egregious behavior...

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF @bfwriter so basically outsiders with military weapons control a city & shake down the residents for money used to finance their...

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF IDKAT... There's structural incentive here. Such a system is vastly I just but racial polarization helps keep it on place.

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF @bfwriter lifestyles which are far more lavish than anyone in the victimized community can hope for. There is no incentive for ...

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF @bfwriter either the cops or the city to change this. In fact racial polarization works to their advantage by removing pressure...

richarddjordan
richarddjordan

@GlennF people act in ways which preserve their paychecks. The cops get paid by going into another community and shaking down fines.

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