How Court Fees and Fines Can Crush You, Ferguson Department

In January I
made some forays into
the grossly underreported topic of how
the pettiest of law enforcement encroachments on our lives can add
up quickly to sometimes very substantial and life-altering fines,
especially for the poor.

The story of Ferguson has brought new light and some very
detailed specifics into that field, as see some previous blogging

by me
Scott Shackford

Mother Jones did
an infuriating examination
into how what starts as something
small—but demanding your presence in court—can add up with just the
simplest of mistakes into unpayable fines or jail time.

Say you’re a low-income Ferguson resident who’s been hit
with a municipal fine for rolling through a stop sign, driving
without insurance, or neglecting to subscribe to the city’s trash
collection service…

To start, you might show up on time for your court date, only to
find that your hearing is already over. How is that possible?
According to a Ferguson court employee who spoke with
St. Louis-based legal aid watchdog ArchCity Defenders, the bench
routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed
time and even locks the doors as early as five minutes
after the official hour, hitting defendants who arrive just
slightly late with an additional charge of $120-130….

Or you may arrive to find yourself faced with an impossible
choice: Skip your court date or leave your children unattended in
the parking lot. Non-defendants, such as children, are permitted by
law to accompany defendants in the courtroom, but a survey by
the presiding judge of the St. Louis County Circuit Court found
that 37 percent of local courts don’t allow it. 

… can be sent to jail for failure to
appear in court (and accrue a $125 fee). If you miss your
court date, the court will likely issue a warrant for your
arrest, which comes with a fee of its own: $50 and 56 cents a mile
driven by the cops who served you.

At this point, you owe your initial fine, plus fines for failure
to appear in court and the arrest warrant. Thomas Harvey, executive
director of ArchCity Defenders, explains that if you’re arrested,
your bail will likely equal the sum of these fines. Ferguson
Municipal Court is only
in session
 three days a month, so if you can’t meet bail,
you might sit in jail for days until the next court session—which,
you guessed it, will cost you $30 to $60 a night until the next
court session.

Once you finally appear in court and receive your verdict,
your IOU is likely to go up again. The average fine in a Ferguson
case resulting in a guilty verdict in 2013: $275

Can’t pay all at once? No problem! Opt for a payment plan,
and come to court once a month with an installment. But if you miss
a date, expect another $125 “failure to appear” fine, plus another
warrant for your arrest.

Lots of these cases arise from the purely procedural crims
of driving without insurance or registration or with a suspended
license—when driving is often the only efficient way for someone to
earn the living to pay off all those fines—not to mention keep
themselves or their families alive.

Last year, Ferguson issued 3
warrants for every household
—25,000 warrants in a city of
21,000 people.

from Hit & Run

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