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The unrest in Ferguson Missouri has brought attention to many issues that have been either been ignored or unknown to the general public regarding municipal courts throughout the St. Louis area.  A group of attorneys who call themselves the ArchCity Defenders have issued a report criticizing the municipal court system in St. Louis.  The report focuses on three of the worst offending municipal courts identified as Bel-Ridge, Ferguson and Florissant.  The report identifies these courts specifically due to their practices that according to the report violate fundamental rights of the poor, undermine public confidence in the judicial system and create inefficiencies.  The municipal court system in the St. Louis County area is a very strange system to the average person in the community.  If a person is stopped in a municipality within St. Louis County they can be given a traffic ticket or summons to appear in court.  Many people assume that they will have to go to Clayton, Missouri which is where the St. Louis County Circuit Courts are located.  Yet, most of the time if the person is within a local municipality then they will have to appear in the municipal court located typically in the city of hall of that particular municipality.  Each municipality typically has a small court that handles all types of traffic offenses, DWIs and minor assaults and thefts.  Depending on the size of the municipality these can be a big source of revenue for the each individual municipality.

As an attorney that practices in these municipal courts on regular basis I see a troubling trend.  I get phone calls all the time from potential clients that get stuck in the system.  A person will get a traffic ticket and they can’t pay the fine so they end up getting a warrant and/or an failure to appear and their license will get suspended.  The only way to get their license reinstated is to pay off the ticket and show proof to the Missouri Department of Revenue that they have paid the fine.  Yet, they have to still drive to get to work and they will get pulled over and get another ticket in a different municipality for driving on a suspended license and they get locked up on the warrant.  Now this person can’t post bond and they lose their job and get released after a couple of days as the municipality doesn’t want pay to keep them in jail.  To make matters worse the courts now added a failure to appear charge which adds more fines and court costs.  Typically, these people are poor or are struggling to get by and now they don’t have a license and they need to get to work to able to pay the rent.  Quickly the fines and court costs add up and they are stuck trying to pay off multiple courts while trying to stay out of jail.  To make matters worse these people typically can’t afford an attorney and they are forced to enter a plea of guilty to a traffic offense without understanding the consequences.  I get phone calls all the time from potential clients that indicate that they entered a plea of guilty to a traffic offense and they didn’t understand that it would add points to their license and eight points will trigger a new suspension of their driving privileges.  To make matter worse all of these points then increase the cost of insurance and result in some people allowing their insurance to lapse because they can’t afford the insurance.

The report from the ArchCity Defenders points out that some of the municipal courts in St. Louis disproportionate stop, charge, incarcerate poor people and minorities.  Recently, three law professors from the St. Louis University Clinical Law Offices and Thomas Harvey, the executive director of the ArchCity Defenders,  wrote a letter to the Mayor of Ferguson asking him to grant clemency to all nonviolent offenders, cancelling all of the warrants and voiding all of the fines.  The idea behind this is to try and get a fresh start in Ferguson where emotions are raw and running high between police and the citizens of Ferguson.  The recent unrest in Ferguson has brought attention to a problem that has been growing the past 5 years due many factors including the economic down turn and high unemployment rate.

As a practicing criminal attorney the best advice that I can give a person is that they need to try and hire an attorney when they first get a ticket as this is usually the most cost efficient way to handle the problem.  Most attorneys charge a minor fee to handle the traffic ticket, get it amended to a no-point violation and even buy you time to save up for the fines.   More importantly if you are stuck in the system with multiple cases in multiple Courts you need an attorney to help you get through this.  Our firm typically can get the warrants recalled and help you get your license reinstated.  We can give you the direction you need to get back on track to a valid license and no warrants.  If you or a family member is in a need of an attorney due to traffic tickets, warrants or other minor municipal violations feel free to contact us at Sansone/Lauber at 314-863-0500 for a free consultation.

 

Source:  “Attorney Group Says Municipal Courts in St. Louis Area Violate Rights of the Poor, by Jeremy Kohler at stltoday.com

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