(KMOV.com) - Our investigation also focused on the role of municipal courts. In the Department of Justice's investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, there are repeated references to the role of the municipal court as a revenue producer. Our investigation also documented the actions of police and courts, and how they seem to have the greatest impact in some of our poorest communities.
During fiscal year 2014, Pine Lawn collected about half of its revenue through municipal court, much of it generated by the police department. Nearly 4 out of 10 residents in Pine Lawn live in poverty. Pine Lawn, a city that struggles to survive financially, is surviving by essentially taxing the poor through traffic tickets and ordinance violations.
Some communities, including St. Ann, have raised millions of dollars in recent years through dramatic increases in traffic tickets and fines. St. Ann used to hand out far more tickets on city streets than Interstate 70, but now issues twice as many citations on I-70, shifting the financial burden from mostly city residents driving on city streets to mostly non-residents who drive through the city briefly on Interstate 70. Last fiscal year, St. Ann collected $3.2 million through its municipal court, about one third of the city budget.
Thomas Harvey, the Executive Director of Arch City Defenders, a non-profit legal group, says the system has the biggest impact on African-Americans, especially the poor. In many courts, there is a disproportionately high percentage of blacks compared to whites, especially when compared to the population of the community holding court. Recently in Ladue, a city with a black population of less than one percent, black defendants represented 45 percent of the cases. The city insists it isn't targeting blacks and that it monitors stops, searches and arrests to make sure city officers are not profiling motorists by their race.
Still, Harvey says the Arch City Defender court watch program found unconstitutional practices in about half of the municipal courts in St. Louis County. The group identified Ferguson, Florissant and Bel-Ridge as chronic offenders.
In Florissant, we uncovered the story of Nick Durrell, a man who was arrested and jailed because he failed to show up in court to pay a $10 fine for not buckling his seatbelt. The incident was so hard to believe, the friend who picked up Durrell from jail told him to make sure he brought the court records to his employer because otherwise his boss wouldn't believe it.