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New Lawsuit Accuses 13 St. Louis Suburbs of Targeting Poor, Black Drivers in Revenue-Making Scheme

Image courtesy of Huffington Post.

Image courtesy of Huffington Post.

Several St. Louis county residents are fed up with the discriminatory policing practices carried out by cash-strapped municipalities looking to make a few dollars off of low-income from African-Americans.

According to NBC News, over a dozen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit Tuesday accusing 13 St. Louis County towns with “extorting money” via traffic fines from poor, Black residents in “a deliberate and coordinated scheme…to fill [their] coffers.” The suit was filed two years to the day after a white police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, the news site states.

Plaintiffs argued that the 13 municipalities targeted and conspired against African-American residents by arresting drivers who were too poor to pay their traffic tickets and keeping them in jail for extended periods of time. The towns are accused of running a “prison debtors scheme,” as heftier fines and jail time piled up against those who were unable to pay.

“We’ve had people that have spent weeks in jails for traffic violations and not only does that run afoul of the expectations we would have for that kind of violation but it runs afoul of the Constitution,” said Blake Strode, a lawyer for local civil rights firm ArchCity Defenders. “No one’s arguing that there shouldn’t be any punishment for these things, but what we can’t do is hold people in jail because they’re too poor to pay a debt.”

Lawyers from ArchCity and D.C. based firm Arnold and Porter said the 13 towns made so many traffic stops in 2015 that there was an average of one arrest warrant per resident.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a scathing report issued by the Department of Justice on the Baltimore Police Department’s discriminatory and unlawful practices targeting African-Americans. The DOJ also released a critical review of the Ferguson Police Department following the death of Brown in 2014. According to Atlanta Black Star, the DOJ investigation found that Black Ferguson residents were being hit with harsh fines for minor infractions such as jaywalking or “crossing at right angles,” – petty infractions very similar to those suffered by St. Louis County residents.

While the DOJ and Ferguson reached an agreement to make sweeping changes to the city’s criminal justice system, the nearby towns in St. Louis County were not subject to federal oversight and could continue policing as they pleased.

The targeted policing has some Black residents scared to drive, for fear that they’ll be pulled over and hauled off to jail. St. Louis County resident Quinton Thomas told NBC News he was fearful of driving and being stopped by police because he knew he had an outstanding number of traffic tickets that he was unable to pay.

Traffic stops have cost me a lot of money, have cost my family money, and also have cost me time and jobs,” said Thomas, who is a construction worker.

One time,  the 28-year-old said he was pulled over for a busted bumper and ended up in jail after the officer ran his license plates to find several warrants for unpaid traffic fines in two of the 13 towns. He was detained for two days and later fired from his job due to his absence. That was the third time in three years Thomas had been taken to jail for warrants stemming from unpaid traffic tickets, NBC News reports.

“Poor people in St. Louis County are being treated very, very differently than people who have money,” Strode said. Municipal court revenues make up a large fraction of the revenues for these towns, so there’s an incentive in the very structure of how this system is set up to pull over as many as people as possible to ticket as many people as possible and to use whatever tools that are at their disposal to collect money.”

Ronda Phelps, the city administrator for Edmundson, has since defended her city’s practices, asserting that the portion of revenue it receives from ticket fines is “way less” than what the state of Missouri allows. According to NBC News, acting Police Chief of Pagedale, Cory Stayton, said that her department has been issuing less traffic citations and that its municipal court has even made efforts to help out those who are unable to pay. Both towns are listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

Beverly Hills Mayor Brian Jackson wasn’t so sympathetic and called the notion of running a “debtor’s prison” ridiculous.

“Stop breaking the law,” Jackson said. “How about we start there?”

Regardless of income, the mayor asserted that people must still obey the law. He also said that the lawsuit jeopardizes public safety in the community of less than 600 residents – 93 percent of whom are African-American, NBC News reports.

Per the news site, the civil suit is seeking a policy change, hearings for accused violators before they’re jailed for a traffic citation, and a statement from the court admitting that these practices are unconstitutional and need to stop. It’s also asking for monetary compensation both for the named plaintiffs and the classes they represent.

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