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Class action lawsuit filed against the City of Florissant

The City of Florissant has been sued  in Federal Court in a class action lawsuit on October 31, 2016 alleging a de facto debtor’s prison system. ArchCity Defenders, a non-profit organization providing civil representation and legal counsel, joined with a Washington DC firm are representing the Plaintiffs. The lawsuit alleges Constitutional violations under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clause and the 6th Amendment’s right to counsel and the right to a hearing to determine a person’s inability to pay. Allegations include “thousands [were] denied their civil rights while Florissant made $14 million. The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, Eastern Division seeks injunctive, declaratory and compensatory relief for the plaintiffs and thousands of class members.

The allegations continue indicating that City officials used municipal codes and petty justifications such as unpaid parking tickets to target residents and jail them. Conditions are deplorable with inmates often kept in the same clothing for days or weeks. Women are denied menstruation products. Food quality is poor causing many detainees to be undernourished.

In 2015, Florissant collected $2.3 mill in court fines and issued 28,000 arrest warrants. Warrants can be issued for those who are unable to pay fines or miss court dates. If picked up on an arrest warrant, individuals can stay in jail until they pay a “bond.”

Florissant is a suburb in North St. Louis County. 

Man’s life ruined by Ferguson Court System

St. Louis native, Fred Watson, was watching baseball in his legally parked car in August of 2012 after playing basketball in Ferguson. Mr. Watson had frequented this specific park for many years.

Ferguson Police Officer, Eddie Boyd, III, parked his car in front of Watsons. The officer requested Watsons social security number, but as he was doing nothing wrong, Watson declined.  Officer Boyd then pulled his gun, removed Watson from the vehicle and arrested him for Driving without a license, failure to have insurance, failure to register and tinting his windows. Watson had his license, his car was registered in Florida and he had insurance.  Pursuant to Florida law, his windows were not excessively tinted. Watson was taken to jail where he posted a $700.00 bond to be released.

After he complained about the way he was treated, Ferguson added two more charges, including failure to comply with a police officer.

Watson worked for the National Geospatial – Intelligence Agency in St. Louis. This job requires special security clearance. At the time this happened he was undergoing a security clearance review. Watson tried to get the charges dropped on his own, but was forced to hire an attorney. His first attorney was unable to get the charges removed from his record. The goes on for a couple of years so Watson hires a second attorney. At this time, the Prosecuting Attorney indicated that all the charges had been amended down to illegal parking and/or littering and all the fines had been paid.

She was wrong. The failure to comply charges were still showing in some court records. Watson was fired because he couldn’t keep his security clearance without clearing up the charges in Ferguson.

His second attorney continued to try to clear his name. In March 2015, his letter criticizing the Ferguson Municipal Court was not responded. Prosecuting Attorney for Ferguson, Stephanie Karr resigned in May of 2016.

Now Watson is on his third set of attorneys, Arch City Defenders. This non-profit law firm has filed a Motion to withdraw the guilty pleas Watson never entered and to declare the convictions void.

New Missouri law bans traffic quotas, changes use-of-force laws

Missouri’s Governor Jay Nixon signed a new crime related bill that updates youth sentencing laws, changes use-of-force statutes, and bans traffic ticket quotas.

Changes will go into effect in 2018 and also make it easier to seal conviction records for some crimes. Currently state laws require a 20 year waiting period to file for an expungement of felonies and 10 years for misdemeanors. The new law reduces the waiting period for felonies to 7 years and 3 years for misdemeanors.  The cost to file is $250 and the person must not have received any other convictions during the waiting period.  Those convicted of dangerous felonies, domestic assault, certain violent crimes and sex offenses will not be eligible.

The legislation, approved by large margins in both the House and Senate, is designed to help former criminals find employment more easily. Records would be sealed from public viewing but prosecutors and police could still receive the information.

Legislation has changed how much physical force a police officer may use to bring Missouri in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tennessee v. Garner.

Ticket quotas, a practice in some Missouri municipals, will likely be abolished with laws now prohibiting cities from encouraging or requiring an employee to issue a certain number of tickets. This change has come about after a push in traffic ticket reforms post 2014 Ferguson unrest and protests.

Sentencing reform also was part of the changes, particularly involving juveniles.  Juvenile murders older than 16 can be assessed a minimum of 50 years and be eligible for a parole hearing. Juvenile murders under age 16 can be sentenced to a minimum of 35 years and be eligible for a parole hearing.  These sentencing options were added for juvenile murders after a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case ruled death sentences were unconstitutional, which left Missouri with only one option of a first-degree murder conviction.  And a later 2012 case stated that life without parole also was unconstitutional.


Missouri Municipal Reforms go into effect today August 28, 2015

Senate Bill #5 goes into effect today. This bill legislated sweeping reforms to the county and municipal courts in the State of Missouri. Specifically targeted at traffic violations, this law regulates income the courts can receive and penalties they may order for traffic violators.

The law prohibits fines for traffic violations to exceed $300 when combined with court costs. This appears to be per violation and not a max fine from any one individual. Failure to pay the fines will not result in incarceration as previously allowed. Further failure to appear and/or pay will not allow the courts to issue new charges for failure to appear.

Judge Thornhill of the Springfield Municipal Court was quoted as stating, “So therefore, in that situation when people owe money but don’t come in and pay, or don’t come in and tell us why our hands are tied.”

Counties and municipalities are permitted to seize income tax refunds for amounts owed in excess of $25.00. There do not appear to be provisions to prevent courts from requesting the Department of Revenue to suspend a violators license for failure to pay. Driving While Suspended charges carry 12 points and can be filed as misdemeanors.

The amount of operating revenue that a municipality or court is permitted to receive from traffic violations has been lowered from 30% to 20% for all areas of the State except St. Louis County and its municipalities. In St. Louis County the percentage of operating revenue has been lowered to 12.5%. Each county, town, city or village will be required to file with the State Auditor a report showing amounts of fines, bond forfeitures, and courts costs and the percentage of those moneys in relation to the general operating budget of the county, town, city or village. Failure to comply could result in a loss of sales tax revenue, or in extreme cases disincorporation.



Special Group Appointed to Review Missouri Municipal Court Practices

Headed by former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justices, Edward D. Robertson, Jr and Ann K. Covington and Appellate Judge Booker t. Shaw, an eleven member group has been created by the Missouri Supreme Court to study municipal court practices and recommend improvements. Per an order from Chief Justice Mary R. Russell, the group will have a few public hearings.

After the Department of Justice report on municipal court practices, the Court felt it necessary to appoint this group to look into, among other things, the revenue raising for municipalities from the court system. This comes right on the heels of a recent General Assembly bill aimed at reducing the percentage of a city’s operating budget that comes from traffic fines.

We should expect a preliminary report by September 1, 2015 and the final by December 1, 2015.