ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV.com) - This is the story of a $10 traffic ticket, the man who forgot to pay it and the system that put him behind bars. The story is so hard to believe, that the city prosecutor created a new policy to make sure it never happens again.
Nicholas Durrell had never been arrested, but he soon learned all about the process when he was cuffed and jailed, not once, but twice because he failed to appear in Florissant Municipal Court to pay a $10 ticket for not wearing his seat belt.
"If it hadn't happened to me I wouldn't believe it," says Durrell.
Durrell's story begins nearly four years ago. He paid a speeding ticket online, but insists there was no record of the seat belt citation, so he didn't pay for that violation.
"I was very much under the assumption that I was finished with it, yes," Durrell told News 4.
However, Florissant Municipal Court records still showed he had an unpaid $10 ticket. So on June 20, 2011, the day after he failed to appear in court, the judge signed a warrant for his arrest. Durrell didn't know about the warrant until a cop pulled him over in Maryland Heights in early February for driving on expired plates.
"The officer asked me to step out of the vehicle, told me to put my hands behind my back. I was under arrest ... he searched me," Durrell said.
Durrell was taken to the Maryland Heights Jail where he waited more than four hours for Florissant to come pick him up. After that, he was in Florissant police custody for an hour and a half. He spent a total of six hours in handcuffs or in a jail.
Durrell described the experiences as "a little surreal. It seems like a joke."
Florissant Municipal Court Judge Dan Boyle, a local attorney, did not respond to repeated requests for a comment.
"We do see people locked up constantly for failure to appear, which is really failing to pay," says Thomas Harvey, the Executive Director of Arch City Defenders, is a non-profit legal defense group that doesn't charge fees. The group has repeatedly sued local municipal courts for allegedly violating the rights of their clients.
"It's a disaster right now. I mean in the most charitable interpretation, the judges and prosecutors and city managers don't understand the impact this system has on poor people's lives," said Harvey.
News 4 Investigates has documented the insensitivity and greed demonstrated by some municipal courts, but until News 4 met Nick Durrell, the station never heard of someone going to jail for what amounted to failing to pay a $10 ticket for not wearing a seatbelt.
After News 4 told Florissant City Prosecutor Ron Brockmeyer about Durrell's case. Brockmeyer says he immediately issued an order dismissing all cases that involved only $10 seat belt violations. However, it's unclear how many active warrants are still in the system for people who failed to appear in court for the same type of case.