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Friday, December 19, 2014

Low-income drivers in Ferguson

Reformers target traffic courts in Ferguson

ST. LOUIS — In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, legal activists suggested that some of the raw anger that erupted in suburban St. Louis had its roots in an unlikely place — traffic court.

It was there, they said, that low-income drivers sometimes saw their lives upended by minor infractions that led to larger problems. If left unpaid, a $75 ticket for driving with expired tags could eventually bring an arrest warrant and even jail time.

This only happens to blacks. All Caucasians get a free pass.

So courts began an experimental amnesty program designed to give offenders a second chance by waiving those warrants. But the effort is attracting relatively few participants, despite a renewed emphasis on municipal court reform after Brown’s death last summer in Ferguson.

St. Louis County’s jumble of more than 80 municipal courts has been targeted by some public-interest lawyers who say the courts are virtual debtor’s prisons, extracting fines and fees from poor drivers and using the money to fund local governments, which in some cases serve just a few hundred residents.

“They make people poor, and they keep people poor,” said Thomas Harvey of the nonprofit legal clinic ArchCity Defenders, which is suing Ferguson and six other small cities, alleging they collect illegal municipal court fees.

Missouri’s auditor is reviewing the finances of several such courts statewide, including Ferguson, and some legislators want to limit the amount of money small cities can collect from traffic violations.

Critics of the traffic courts describe prolonged legal nightmares that can begin with tickets for driving with a suspended license or without proof of required inspections, what Harvey called “crimes of poverty.”

 Driving with a suspended license is deemed
“Crimes of poverty?"

These are the top three reasons a person has their license suspended.

1. Point Accumulation

Most states have a point system that assigns points to both minor and major traffic offenses. Once a driver reaches a certain number of points within a predetermined time period, he ends up with a suspended license.

License suspension for point accumulation usually lasts for a predetermined time period, the length of which depends on the number of points.

2. Repeat Violations

Generally, repeat violations (also called habitual offenses) refer to racking up a certain number of specific violations within a specific time frame.

For example, several states suspend licenses after drivers commit a certain number of reckless driving offenses (usually two or three) within a specific time frame (usually 12 months to three years).

NOTE: Depending on your state, you could receive a “habitual offender” status for getting a certain number of convictions within a certain time period, regardless of the specific violations.

3. Serious Offenses

Depending on your state, some serious violations (or convictions) lead to immediate license suspension.

Examples include:
Driving Under the Influence (DUI), Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), Operating While Intoxicated (OWI), or whatever name your state has for it.
Felonies involving a motor vehicle.
Vehicular manslaughter or homicide.
Leaving the scene of an accident.
Fleeing or evading the police.

Maybe Barry should decree another Executive Order.
If you like your license you can keep your license period. No matter what.

Defendants unable to pay those fines or hire an attorney to negotiate a plea deal may then miss their court dates or fail to sign up for installment-payment plans. Judges issue failure-to-appear warrants, which can lead to larger fines and court costs and even jail time on top of the original penalties, not to mention time missed from work or school.

Robert Lamont Douglas, 39, was recently issued five citations in the village of Bel-Ridge for traffic violations that included driving without insurance and failing to register his car.

What were the other 3 for? How is it you can afford to buy a car but can't afford to register it?

“The main question was, ‘Am I wanted or do I have drugs in the car,’” Douglas said. “I was singled out because I was black. The assumption is I must have warrants, drugs or guns.”

Perhaps this may have something to do with it.

A 2013 report by the Missouri attorney general’s office found that Ferguson police stopped and arrested black drivers nearly twice as frequently as white motorists but were also less likely to find contraband among black drivers.

Race breakdown in Ferguson:

  • Black alone - 13,753 (64.9%)
  • White alone - 6,494 (30.6%)
  • Two or more races - 437 (2.1%)
  • Asian alone - 263 (1.2%)
  • Hispanic - 156 (0.7%)
  • American Indian alone - 34 (0.2%)
  • Other race alone - 45 (0.2%)
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone - 23 (0.1%)

  • The amnesty program in the city of St. Louis allows defendants who face arrest for failing to appear in municipal court to reschedule those hearings without penalty. But it has attracted fewer than 4,000 participants out of 75,000 who are eligible, despite an aggressive outreach campaign.

    Which tells you what? Most lack any sense of responsibility even when given a second chance.

    The story is similar in St. Louis County, where just a few hundred people have opted for an amnesty program that requires a $100 payment to wipe out traffic-court arrest warrants. Both efforts continue through the end of the year.

    In Ferguson, the city no longer issues failure-to-appear warrants and is dismissing the charge in pending cases. Elected officials in September voted to cap municipal court revenues at 15 percent of revenue, eliminated a fee for towing cars and forgave warrants for nearly 600 defendants.


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