Lawsuit filed against St. Louis municipalities for ‘debtors’ prison scheme’

   

ST. LOUIS – A legal group filed a class action lawsuit against 13 St. Louis County municipalities for defrauding residents with legal system abuse on Tuesday.

The Arch City Defenders (ACD), a nonprofit law firm that serves those in poverty, brought the suit. The group alleges that municipalities have abused, manipulated and extorted the poor and disproportionately African-American people through “over-policing” arbitrary penalties and fines, and a lack of due process.

They filed the suit Tuesday on the two-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Many argue that Brown’s death lacked due process and resulted from inequity in Ferguson’s municipal government and police department.

The ACD equates their governance with a “modern-day police state and a debtors’ prison scheme that has no place in American society.”

“Plaintiffs are a group of similarly situated individuals who are victims of the Defendants’ predatory scheme,” the lawsuit reads. “Each of these individuals was locked in a cage by or on behalf of one or more of the 13 municipalities named as Defendants in this lawsuit… solely because he or she was unable to afford a cash payment.”

The entire lawsuit has a plethora of charges and anecdotes detailing the abuses. One story details the experience of Meredith Walker, who had to pay over $15,000 in court expenses over five years. Even though she has not committed a moving violation in 15 years, she still lost her license when she could not pay her fees.

In another excerpt, the Cool Valley Police arrested and jailed a man named Ronald Tucker. They put him in a cell commonly referred to as “the dog cage” where he did not have access to hygiene products, a shower, or a bed. Tucker ate old McDonalds food shoved under the cell door by his guards. He even had to defecate and urinate on the floor of the cell given its lack of toilets.

Police arrested Tucker because he lost his job in 2012 and could not fulfill a payment plan totaling $300.

Schmitt
Schmitt

In the past two years, the Missouri General Assembly has focused on problems relating to municipal courts abusing power. Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, crafted and passed SB 5 from 2015 to rectify problems with municipal government overreach. It imposed new rules on arbitrary traffic violations and rules for the dissolution of municipal courts, among other changes.

“It is unconscionable some municipalities still think they can prey on their citizens and throw them in debtors’ prisons if the citizens are unable to pay the municipality’s taxation by citation fees,” Schmitt said in a statement.

Lawsuit encourages major St. Louis consolidation group

This civil lawsuit may also break the back of a fractured municipal system decried by many pro-consolidation St. Louisans. Dave Leipholtz of Better Together St. Louis says that the statements in the lawsuit that many found “shocking” did not surprise him.

“When you have to find ways to pay for the 90 different cities that are in the county, you’re going to have some unhealthy and in this case unconstitutional practices,” he said.

Leipholtz added they displayed a “Wild West” mentality where many municipalities focus more on revenue than on public safety. He supports this belief with findings from Better Together studies, audits from State Auditor Nicole Galloway, and the Ferguson Commission.

“What our studies have shown is that the degree of fragmentation in our region leads to a lot of internal competition for funds and one of those revenue streams that’s attractive to some struggling municipalities is court costs.”

Still, Leipholtz hopes this lawsuit shows municipalities cannot “hunker down” to weather the current storm of scrutiny.

The ACD also filed suit against the city of Ferguson for constitutional violations of four citizens during the Ferguson protests. The plaintiffs in that case are asking for $20 million.