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Is Ferguson Feeding on the Poor? City Disproportionately Stops, Charges and Fines People of Color

StoryAugust 27, 2014
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As the police killing of Michael Brown has focused global attention on the racial divide in the counties in and surrounding St. Louis, Missouri, a new report may explain why residents’ mistrust of the police runs so deep. It shows how a large part of the revenue for these counties comes from fines paid by African-American residents who are disproportionately targeted for traffic stops and other low-level offenses. In Ferguson, the fines and fees are actually the city’s second-largest source of income, which is expected to generate $2.7 million in fiscal year 2014. We speak with Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders and co-author of their new report, which has been widely cited — including in a stunning chart in Monday’s New York Times that shows how Ferguson issued on average nearly three warrants per household last year — the highest number of warrants in the state, relative to its size. “What my clients have told me since the first day I’ve ever represented anybody is, this is not about public safety, it’s about the money,” Harvey says. We also hear about the impact of the police harassment and ticketing from George Fields, who was among the local residents lined up for Michael Brown’s funeral on Monday in St. Louis.

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StoryAug 19, 2014“Overpoliced & Underprotected”: In Michael Brown Killing, Neglect of Black Communities Laid Bare
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now back to Ferguson, where residents are continuing to demand the arrest of the white police officer who shot dead unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. The reaction to Brown’s death focused global attention on the racial divide in counties in and surrounding St. Louis, Missouri. Now a new report may help explain why residents’ mistrust of police runs so deep. It shows how a large part of the revenue for these counties comes from fines paid by black residents who are disproportionately targeted for traffic stops and other low-level offenses. In Ferguson, the fines are actually the city’s second-largest source of income. We’ll talk with the author of the report in a minute, but first, this is one of the St. Louis area residents Democracy Now! interviewed Monday, as he waited in line to attend Michael Brown’s funeral.

GEORGE FIELDS: I’m George Fields, and I’m here for Mike Brown, and mostly for all black men walking down the streets stuck here, not being able to go out in the county, seriously, sir, because we’re like—city is a little more lenient with ticket values and stuff, and we have just been ticketed over much over there, and then it leads to other crimes, you know. And a ticket costs you 50 cents—I mean, $50 a ticket, right? But you have to pay bond. You have to be in jail three days and stuff and like that. It’s just too much.

And in past Goodfellow city line, they tow your car automatically, you know. So they don’t have no leniency in the county with the county police at all, for real. If you check the records, everybody that pass Goodfellow here at the city line get pulled over automatically. And then it’s just a kind of push-off against—you know, systematically against blacks, for real. If you look at the statistics, it shows you. It’s just a little too much when you get pulled over for menial things. You have to go through too much to get out, and you lose your jobs and whatnot, you know, for a $50 ticket and pull-over.

You cannot go in the county. I’m fearful of the county. I’ve been stuck here in the city for six or seven years because the county has been that bad. My kids stay in the county. I can’t see them. I’ve got to sneak to see my kids. I have to sneak to see my kids, because my plate might be bad or something. You know, I’m poor, and I’m trying to drive around to get better. But, you know, they won’t ticket you; they just take your stuff, immediately. You know, if you take it, their tow thing is ready, you know, every time.

AARON MATÉ: This ticketing is a systemic targeting of African Americans.

GEORGE FIELDS: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. They know it, and the lord knows it, too. Yes, sir. That is correct. You said it out your mouth. That’s correct. You know, I can’t go nowhere past the city line, because the city works with me on paying. They don’t. They just cut you off automatically. I pray today a change. Amen.

AMY GOODMAN: That was George Fields, one of the St. Louis area residents who attended Michael Brown’s funeral, speaking with Democracy Now!’s Aaron Maté right before he stepped into the church to attend the funeral.

Well, on Tuesday, a group of attorneys with the group ArchCity Defenders attended a city council meeting in Ferguson and asked the mayor to grant clemency to residents with fines for low-level, nonviolent offenses. We’re joined now by Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders and co-author of their new report, which has been widely cited, including a stunning chart in Monday’s New York Times that shows how Ferguson issued on average nearly three warrants per household last year, the highest number of warrants in the state relative to its size.

Thomas Harvey, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what is happening in Ferguson.

THOMAS HARVEY: Good morning, Amy. Thank you for having me.

So, in Ferguson and the surrounding municipalities, there is a substantial amount of income that’s derived from these low-level ordinance violations. These are the least significant, lowest-level contact with the justice system. They are typically traffic tickets, moving violations. And as a system, as a structural problem, these—revenue from these municipal courts can represent either the second- or third-highest source of income for the municipality. Ferguson is $2.7 million a year. In neighboring Florissant, the adjacent municipality, it’s $3 million a year. It’s a line item on a budget, and enforcement of the laws and ticketing and fine amounts are in keeping with the expectation that that income is going to come in to fund the city.

And our clients believe that they are targeted initially because they’re black, and then they are harassed, and they are exploited because they are poor. And it has led to a level of distrust between the community and law enforcement, that you saw manifested in some of the protests in the last two weeks. I’m not trying to say that traffic tickets are the reason people are on the streets of Ferguson, but it’s certainly a contributing factor when you’ve got the tragedy with Michael Brown and the very same people that my clients believe are targeting them because they’re members of community of color and then exploiting them because they’re poor, are now asking them for patience and trust and promising to get to the right answer involving the shooting. And our clients are skeptical. And as the audio clip you just played reveals, it doesn’t take much for someone in this community to move to tell you that in St. Louis County this is a real problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Harvey, I want to hear from one of your clients, Nicole, a mother of four who lives in St. Louis County and was arrested in 2009 for driving with a suspended license. She spent two weeks in jail, with a bond of $1,700 that was later reduced to $700, and is still dealing with the traffic tickets from five years ago.

NICOLE: You learn to sacrifice in order to avoid the headache, but it’s still how much sacrificing can you do? Because, like, my children first start school in three weeks, but I’ve got to pay 50 bucks somewhere, and then I still got a couple more court dates out there. They’re going to want money. So, my money goes to, first, what I see, and then I worry about the next thing.

AMY GOODMAN: In the video, Nicole also talks about how she thinks the system needs to change.

NICOLE: There’s a lot of things that need to be rewritten. There’s a lot of things that need to be rewritten. Some of the fines can go down. Like, that’s ridiculous, $300, $500, for driving while suspended. When if a person came—OK, so, if a person, say—I stay in North County, and say I took a job all the way out in South County. I got to get to work. I have to make this money so I can take care of my children. But if you tell me not to drive, and say the bus don’t go where I need to go, you’re basically telling me I have to stop feeding my children just so I can abide by your law.

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Harvey, talk about Nicole and what her case illustrates.

THOMAS HARVEY: Yeah, Nicole is a very good example of a kind of culmination of all these problems, because these are poor people. These are not criminals. These are people who can’t afford to pay the fines that middle-class folks could pay that would lead to an amendment of their nonmoving violation. And not to get too far in the weeds, but if you have means, and you and I have the same driving record, you can commit the same violations and pay to get a moving violation turned into a nonmoving violation, and then you don’t suffer the consequence of your actions.

So, Nicole has a driving while suspended because she couldn’t pay to get her tickets amended. So her license got suspended as a result. She has no proof of insurance, because she couldn’t get paid to get her tickets amendments, so her insurance costs went up, and it was prohibitively expensive. She’s charged with—typically charged with what our clients are charged with, the big three poverty crimes—and they’re not really crimes—but it’s driving while suspended, no proof of insurance, and failure to register vehicle. These are not people who are refusing to comply with the law; they’re people who cannot comply with the law.

And Nicole’s case is particularly illustrative because she was incarcerated—she was incarcerated for two weeks on a warrant for her arrest because she was unable to pay the fines. Then when she was brought before the court, she—as she’s entitled to, she asked for a hearing. We represented her. We asked for a hearing to determine her ability to pay the fines. And the court refused our hearing. That’s an unlawful act. The court refused our hearing on that matter and told us that we needed to schedule it a week later. Nicole was returned to jail and was threatened with another week of incarceration, while her children were with her mother and her sister, and she possibly was going to lose her job. And so her mother and her sister borrowed money. Her mom borrowed money against her life insurance policy. Her sister loaned Nicole her biweekly paycheck. That was to come up with $700. So, Nicole didn’t have $700. Her mother and her sister came up with 700 bucks to get her out of jail.

And that’s not what the system should be about. We have to divorce the administration of justice from the generation of revenue. And that’s a systemic problem in our region. And they’re incarcerating people and creating problems that, in the most charitable interpretation, I don’t think they’re aware of the consequences they’re having on people’s lives and the havoc they’re wreaking in this region.

AMY GOODMAN: Are we talking about debtors’ prison?

THOMAS HARVEY: Yes, I believe we are talking about debtors’ prison. It’s part of a problem that you see in the criminalization of poverty all over the country. Southern Poverty Law Center has brought a lawsuit. Southern Center for Human Rights has been involved in some litigation there. It’s something where you see people held in jail as a result of their inability to pay fines. Up to the moment where they are brought before the court because they failed to appear, I don’t believe there’s anything unlawful that’s happened. At the moment where a person has been brought to court on a warrant for failure to appear, and they’ve said, “I cannot afford to pay the fines you’ve assessed,” the court must allow them to leave or make a finding that they are willfully refusing to comply with the court’s order. In the absence of such a finding, it’s unlawful to continue to incarcerate them.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, just as we wrap up, Thomas Harvey, just coming from Ferguson, the first night we were there, we were covering people in a parking lot who were protesting. Across the street were the riot police. They were standing in between the fire department and the police station. The police station was just being built. It was a modern, major facility. Is the money of these people being taken going to build that police station?

THOMAS HARVEY: I don’t know the answer to that question, but I will tell you that what my clients have told me since the first day I’ve ever represented anybody is, this is not about public safety, it’s about the money. And whether or not that building was built on the backs of poor people in Ferguson and the rest of the region, I really don’t know the answer. But I know my clients believe it. I know the optics are bad. And I realize that that dynamic is what’s contributing to some of the tensions between law enforcement and the community. And if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to have some real structural reform and revise this system, that is racist—

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Harvey—

THOMAS HARVEY: —that has a systemic racism built into it, we’re going to—it’s going to be a huge missed opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Harvey, we have to go, and we thank you so much for being with us, executive director of ArchCity Defenders. Tomorrow on Democracy Now!, an Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video.

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“Overpoliced & Underprotected”: In Michael Brown Killing, Neglect of Black Communities Laid Bare

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