Holistic Legal Advocacy by ArchCity Defenders Shines Spotlight on Over-Policing and Racial Discrimination, Combatting the Criminalization of Poverty
In May of 2016, Quinton Thomas, a native St Louisan was pulled over in Beverly Hills, a Missouri town of 574 people that is 93% black and receives 26% of its general revenue from court fines and fees. Mr. Thomas was driving his friend to a barber shop to get his haircut when he was stopped by police for having a “busted front bumper.” In the past three years, Mr. Thomas has been pulled over, arrested and jailed for unpaid traffic tickets, and as a result he has lost two jobs and one vehicle, not to mention days of his life, and a sense of safety when he gets behind the wheel.
Mr. Thomas is not alone, and is the lead plaintiff in a class action filed simultaneously against thirteen towns by ArchCity Defenders in partnership with Arnold & Porter, a D.C. law firm. The lawsuit also alleges that thirteen towns in St Louis have conspired to run a debtors’ prison scheme by using one central town’s jail.
Systemic policies of racial profiling, over-policing, over-ticketing, arresting and jailing provide the blueprint to understand how people and communities of color are exploited and extorted for money in St Louis and across the country. The constellation of consequences from this predatory localized legal system include but are not limited to the loss of liberty, jobs, housing, vehicles and custody rights.
Before the murder of Mike Brown in August 2014, ArchCity Defenders conducted a court watching program, interviewed community members and documented the systemic racially discriminatory and unconstitutional practices employed by said police departments and municipal courts to generate excessive revenue. ArchCity Defenders published that report highlighting the systemic failure of the legal system through studies of Ferguson and two neighboring St. Louis towns, Florissant and Bel-Ridge, shortly after the uprising in Ferguson began.
Crisis gives people license to look at and write about things in a way that they already should be. Over the past two years, ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm based in St Louis has represented clients, brought impact litigation and national censure of the underlying issues that rest at the heart of community protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and numerous cities across the country.
Logic would lead most people to believe that after ArchCity Defenders' court watching program and subsequent reports, that after Mike Brown, the Ferguson uprising, and successful impact litigation, municipalities in St Louis would establish meaningful and permanent court reform and thoroughly eliminate systemic, predatory practices.
In the past two years, police departments, municipal court systems, city prosecuting attorneys’ offices, and jails in St Louis County have continued to terrorize thousands of people, primarily low-income people of color, deliberately to extort money. In February 2015, ArchCity Defenders sued the cities of Ferguson and Jennings, for running modern day debtors’ prisons, for arresting and jailing people for not being able to pay on minor traffic tickets they’d received as a result of over-policing. In September of 2015, ArchCity Defenders entered into a landmark settlement proposal with the City of Jennings, which entails a $4.7 million settlement and commitment to re-establishing constitutional practices, a few examples include: elimination of cash bail, establishment of a meaningful inquiry into a person’s ability to pay and not issuing warrants or jailings for the failure to pay.
While ArchCity Defenders celebrates legal victories, like the historic settlement with Jennings, it’s important to reiterate that over-policing and racial discrimination keep the fabric of St Louis County’s municipalities stitched together to some extent. Quinton Thomas was still pulled over, arrested and jailed in May 2016 for his inability to pay traffic tickets and court fees. He spent time in jail because of unpaid traffic tickets, a civil rights violation that ultimately exacerbated his financial situation by forcing him to miss work and lose his vehicle.
ArchCity Defenders’ clients, who are overwhelmingly poor and black, have been saying it for years: this isn’t about public safety; it’s about racism and money, and it’s not just happening in Ferguson. This most recent lawsuit, Thomas v St Ann (Case No. 4:16-cv-1302), brings further attention to the racially charged and discriminatory money-making scheme established and enforced within St. Louis County. Before Mike Brown’s murder and after it, municipalities have exploited low-income communities of color to make payroll. ArchCity Defenders is committed to ending debtors’ prisons in St. Louis and to setting a regional precedent that ends Constitutional violations and systemic racism.