To understand why legislation proposed in Jefferson City is infuriating Kansas City’s Municipal Court, revisit the report that most people missed.
That would be the U.S. Justice Department report on Ferguson. Yes, it is the one that exonerated Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson from violating the civil rights of Michael Brown.
People got that part of the March 2015 report.
Less widely absorbed was the scathing critique of how the Ferguson Police Department was in cahoots with the court system, set up to fleece residents.
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Public safety wasn’t what guided Ferguson. It was raising money for the city.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican, would eliminate jail time and cap fines for many municipal offenses. Ferguson, and many of the jurisdictions in St. Louis County, needed such reigning in.
Problem is, Kansas City isn’t Ferguson. And if passed, the law will be statewide.
Ferguson’s court met for three or four sessions a month, each lasting about three hours. About 500 people would be cattle-called through each time, dealing with between 1,200 and 1,500 offenses.
Why so many, you ask?
Well, police were writing a lot of citations, as many as they could.
It was sport. Police had contests as to who could gerrymander the most citations out of a single stop. One example in the federal report was of a man being charged with making a false declaration because he said his name was “Mike,” not Michael. He was also charged with giving a false address because the one he gave, which was correct, differed from what was on his license.
Often, the report found, there wasn’t a constitutionally sound reason when police pulled drivers over or made pedestrian stops.
“Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them,” the report found.
City officials would send notes to the Ferguson police chief detailing what amount of revenue was desired. The chief would write back that his officers would do their part. And there was little to rein in officers who might step outside of the laws to meet the order. Reports weren’t filed. Complaints weren’t followed up.
Police who tried to complain were silenced, threatened with no pay raises and certainly no promotions.
Once people got to court, they faced a system that tacked on new fees, charges and fines every time they failed to show up or didn’t pay an amount in full. There wasn’t an adequate system to check if someone had the ability to pay, and community service to make amends wasn’t allowed.
“Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing,” the federal report on Ferguson found.
To expedite this fundraising off residents, the court clerk had the authority to play judge. She would accept guilty pleas, issue subpoenas and approve bonds.
When people talk about institutionalized racism, Ferguson, and how it operated, was a prime example.
But, again, Ferguson is not Kansas City.
In Kansas City, municipal court fees and fines make up a fraction, 3.5 percent, of the general fund. In Ferguson, about 20 percent of the city’s budget was once from such fines and fees, according to the federal report. Big difference.
Municipal court judges in Kansas City argue that they need to retain the higher fines that the state law would limit, and the ability to jail in some instances, to force compliance from some people.
The solutions that are proposed in the bills making their way through Jefferson City might make sense in the context of St. Louis County. But they don’t fit the situation in Kansas City.
We’re not perfect. But if people driving down Ward Parkway or Troost Avenue were routinely pulled over by police without cause and subjected to scrutiny where an officer was blatantly trying to drum up citations for multiple fines, you’d know about it.
The lawsuits would be flying, as they should be.
But in Ferguson, and other similar small cities, for years there was less legal backlash and more brewing discontent. And people wonder why Ferguson blew.
This is what happens when government offends the public trust.
Police and the courts wield tremendous power. When they abuse it, as happened in St. Louis County, the consequences are horrendous.
The challenge for the state legislation is to force the entities with a history of outrageous overreach to change. And not to hamstring judges elsewhere.