Thirteen St. Louis County cities are accused of conspiring to jail poor people because they can't afford to pay traffic fines, penalties, and bail: a debtors prison that punishes citizens who can’t pay. Arch City Defenders and the law firm Arnold and Porter filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of a dozen plaintiffs, on the second anniversary of Michael Brown's death.
The cities being sued are St. Ann, Edmundson, Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda City, Beverly Hills, Pagedale, Calverton Park, St. John, Bel Ridge, Wellston, Velda Village Hills, and Bellefontaine Neighbors. The plaintiffs’ attorneys charge these towns with conspiring to run what’s described as debtors prison, collecting fines from low income residents in order to fund local governments.
“Poor people in St. Louis County are being treated very differently than people who have money,” said Blake Strode, an Arch City Defenders attorney. “These cities are all coordinating together in order to hold people who cannot afford to pay traffic fines and can't afford to pay cash bail because of their poverty. 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.”
The suit accuses the city of St. Ann of acting as a hub to jail people with warrants from the other 12 communities named in the lawsuit.
“Another element of the conspiracy is St. Ann acting as a jailing hub on behalf of multiple municipalities in the region,” said Strode, “such that they are making revenue by holding inmates for other cities and those cities are able to enforce their warrants and generate revenue from people by virtue of having St. Ann hold people on their behalf. St Ann generates revenue by holding individuals on behalf of those towns and those towns are able to generate revenue from the people that are being held in the form of cash bonds or other sorts of payments that we think are extorted from folks who don't have the money to pay.”
Strode calls the alleged conspiracy a debtors prison.
“The current form of debtor's prison involves people owing money to public entities, so in this case owing money to municipalities in the form of traffic fines and fees,” said Strode. “When they can't afford to pay those, when they miss a payment and miss the court date, a warrant is issued, they're picked up on the warrant, held in jail, and held on a cash bond that is usually equivalent to that cash amount. If an individual could pay the underlying fine, they would never be held in jail, but because people can't afford to pay they're sometimes spending hours, days, weeks, in jail.”
That’s what plaintiff Quentin Thomas said happened to him. Thomas, a union concrete finisher, said unpaid fines from traffic stops led to several arrests and jail sentences, costing him two jobs and a car.
“Losing a vehicle within the process, lost two jobs within the process of getting pulled over for minor traffic stops,” said Thomas. “I joined the lawsuit because I felt in my heart that it's time for a change. I always wanted to speak out but at the time I never knew how to or what to do about it.”
Although much attention has been focused on Ferguson in the two years since the Michael Brown shooting, Strode said the lawsuit indicates there is a regional problem when it comes to the treatment of poor citizens in North St. Louis County.
“Some of that attention has been narrowly focused on Ferguson and we think what this lawsuit shows is that this is really a broader regional problem,” said Strode. “This lawsuit suggests that fight has a long way to go.
NewsChannel 5 spoke to the city attorneys for St. Ann, Normandy, Edmundson City, Cool Valley, Bel Ridge, and Bellefontaine Neighbors, who had not seen the lawsuit and declined comment.