The Widdershins

“With liberty and justice for all”

Posted on: September 10, 2014

unbalanced scale

So maybe not so much on the “justice for all” part these days…especially if you are poor.  And probably also if you are black.  You can take the case of Nicole Bolden for example.  Nicole lives in St. Louis county Missouri.  One day as she was driving, a car made an illegal U-turn in front of her.  She did her best to avoid the accident but it happened nonetheless.  Nicole wasn’t at fault and didn’t want to call the police but the other driver insisted on it and that’s when Nicole’s problems started.

A police officer arrived and Nicole said he was fairly nice at first.  But then, when he ran her name and information he changed his attitude.  The officer changed his attitude because when he ran Nicole’s information, he found she had outstanding warrants in four different jurisdictions in St. Louis County.  The warrants were for failures to appear in court for traffic violations.  The reason she didn’t appear for the court hearing was because she didn’t have the money to pay the fines.

A couple of those fines were for speeding, one was for failure to wear her seatbelt and most of the rest were for what defense attorneys in the St. Louis area have come to call “poverty violations” — driving with a suspended license, expired plates, expired registration and a failure to provide proof of insurance.

Because these warrants were in different towns or municipalities in St. Louis County, each of which had it’s own little court system, Nicole had to go through all of them.

The Florissant officer first took Bolden to the jail in that town, where Bolden posted a couple hundred dollars bond and was released at around midnight. She was next taken to Hazelwood and held at the jail there until she could post a second bond. That was another couple hundred dollars. She wasn’t released from her cell there until around 5 p.m. the next day. Exhausted, stressed, and still worried about what her kids had seen, she was finally taken to the St. Charles County jail for the outstanding warrant in Foristell. Why the county jail? Because the tiny town of 500 isn’t large enough to have its own holding cell, even though it does have a mayor, a board of aldermen, a municipal court and a seven-member police department. It’s probably best known locally for the speed trap its police set along I-70.

By the end of the line, so-to-speak, in St. Charles County it had been 36 hrs since the time of the accident.  Oh and Nicole asked about what was going to happen to her kids who were with her and the officer replied she better arrange for someone to come and get them.  She was fortunate that another officer stayed with the kids until Nicole’s mother and sister could get them.

This was Nicole’s second arrest.  She had had another in 2009 on a warrant for a speeding ticket.  She was in jail for three days for that one.  This time Michael-John Voss of ArchCity Defenders explained that the town of Foristell only held municipal court every two weeks.  As Voss explained:

“She was crying as I explained the situation to her,” Voss says. “So then I started to cry as I explained it her. One of the really frustrating things about what’s happening here is that this system is breaking good people. These are people just trying to get by, just trying to take care of their families.” Voss’s eyes well up as he talks about Bolden. This isn’t just an attorney defending his client. It’s a guy who is concerned about what’s happening to another human being. Bolden is a single black woman with four kids. She has several tattoos. It’s easy to see how cops might target her, or court officials might dismiss her. But Voss points out that she had already earned an associate’s degree in medical assistance. And while dealing with all of the arrests and the harassment, she earned another in paralegal studies.

Now, Nicole didn’t show up for these court appearances because she was afraid she would be fined and not be able to pay the fine.  As the WaPo article says:

The Foristell warrant stemmed from a speeding ticket in 2011. As mentioned before, Bolden didn’t show up in court because she didn’t have the money to pay it and feared they’d put her jail. It’s a common and unfortunate misconception among St. Louis County residents, especially those who don’t have an attorney to tell them otherwise. A town can’t put you in jail for lacking the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed not appearing in court to tell the judge you can’t pay — and fined again for not showing up. After twice failing to appear for the Foristell ticket, Bolden showed up, was able to get the warrant removed and set up a payment plan with the court. But she says that a few months later, she was a couple days late with her payment. She says she called to notify the clerk, who told her not to worry. Instead, the town hit her with another warrant — the same warrant for which she was jailed in March.

Voss was able to get Nicole’s find down to $700 but even that was too much for her to afford and the judge in Foristell said he would consider a motion for indigency until the next court session…in another two weeks.  The following day Nicole’s mother borrowed against a life insurance policy and was able to make bail.

The way that Nicole ended up with tickets and warrants in 4 different judicial jurisdictions is because of the way the various towns and villages are set up around St. Louis county and also fines such as these are the main source of revenue for these small places.

“These aren’t violent criminals,” says Thomas Harvey, another of the three co-founders of ArchCity Defenders. “These are people who make the same mistakes you or I do — speeding, not wearing a seatbelt, forgetting to get your car inspected on time. The difference is that they don’t have the money to pay the fines. Or they have kids, or jobs that don’t allow them to take time off for two or three court appearances. When you can’t pay the fines, you get fined for that, too. And when you can’t get to court, you get an arrest warrant.”

As Harvey further explains:

Arrest warrants are also public information. They can be accessed by potential landlords or employers. So they can prevent someone from getting a job, housing, job training, loans or financial aid. “So they just get sucked into this vortex of debt and despair,” Harvey says.

This is a great, very in-depth article on the “legal systems” of all of these municipalities in St. Louis county and how there are almost incestuous relationships between local prosecutors and law firms or the prosecutors and themselves:

According to a recent white paper published by the ArchCity Defenders, the chief prosecutor in Florissant Municipal Court makes $56,060 per year. It’s a position that requires him to work 12 court sessions per year, at about three hours per session. The Florissant prosecutor is Ronald Brockmeyer, who also has a criminal defense practice in St. Charles County, and who is also the chief municipal prosecutor for the towns of Vinita Park and Dellwood. He is also the judge – yes, the judge — in both Ferguson and Breckenridge Hills. Brockmeyer isn’t alone: Several other attorneys serve as prosecutor in one town and judge in another. And at least one St. Louis County assistant district attorney is also a municipal court judge.

As I said, it’s a great, long piece but worthy of a read. And this situation of being too poor for the legal system is apparently not unique as shown by this instance from Slidell La.

A Slidell man accused of robbing a woman at gunpoint Monday (Aug. 25) morning told police he was looking for money to pay probation fees in connection with a prior narcotics arrest, according to Slidell police.

Police said Terry Jones, 18, approached a 30-year-old woman at the The Forestwood Apartments on Mary Street – a few blocks from the police station – at around 9:30 a.m. The woman, who was holding her infant son, told police Jones shoved a pistol into her chest and demanded her purse.

The woman said she handed over a diaper bag, which Jones thought was a purse. Police said Jones quickly realized nothing of value was inside and he ran from the scene.

Now poor ole Terry here seems to have several strikes against him.  While he seemed to luck out in getting probation on a narcotics charge in La, he didn’t have the scratch available to pay his fees and maybe being afraid of hitting parish prison decided that armed robbery would take care of things…a few blocks away from the police station.  But perhaps that was his only alternative.  Having been arrested for a narcotics violation, this would have probably limited his employment opportunities and hence he came around full circle.  I don’t think he’ll be worrying about probation for awhile.

This is an open thread and here’s hoping our resident legal eagle will share some thoughts with us.

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14 Responses to "“With liberty and justice for all”"

There will be justice, just not equal justice. Remember the guy in Ft. Lauderdale who committed vehicular homicide and is serving 4 years house arrest in his oceanview condo? Oh, the humanity!

Fredster, thanks for writing this — too often we forget the maze of impediments the “system” sets up for those too poor to hire some wrinkled courthouse lawyer to run the mazes for them.

I’ve seen this and if you have an ounce an iota of empathy in your soul it just breaks your heart. On occasion a corporate client or their kids would get a traffic ticket and they would call. Without knowing the ins and outs of the system, I often had to sit, listen, and watch the parade of depression.

Women with three toddlers in tow were told, “You can’t bring those children into the courtroom,” and her question on what to do was met with nothing more than shrugs. Old disabled men who were veterans shuffled up to the bench and told to fork over hundreds of dollars for a simple violation and always plus court costs — that almost assured they went the better part of the month begging for food.

Traffic court in a big city is the closest thing we have to a poverty court. If you are poor and drive, you are taking a chance everyday that your world will be turned upside down for expired plates, failure to stop, a brake light, or just driving while black. Few people take the time to realize even in big cities public transportation doesn’t run all night and only starts around 6:00 a.m. The types of jobs available often require wild schedules were public transport isn’t running and you can bet these folks don’t live in contiguous neighborhoods.

Trouble is, without the transportation the working poor just become poorer. I would love to bring Paul Ryan or any of the other fools who waste good air by spouting their horseshite and let them sit through just one day of big city traffic court and then interview those who won themselves a couple of hundred dollars in fines and court costs for trying to get to work.

The unrelenting inequity of stuff like this works me up.

Prolix thanks for your insights into this situation. This entire thing is just messed up. And if you are someone who is one of the working poor, it seems that all it takes is one or two instances of being pulled over for a minor traffic violation and then your entire world is turned upside down. In the case of Nicole, her having warrants in 3 different jurisdictions is what caused her nightmare. Also, you can see from the article that she was not someone who was just ‘drawing a check” but rather someone trying to better her situation through education.

I think it was deep in the article that the author wrote that in St. Louis county, with all of these municipalities having their own courts systems, that it was possible to have one infraction (expired tag) you could drive through 16 different towns and end up with 16 tickets all for the same thing.

“Theoretically, you could be driving home from work on this road, and if you have expired tags or no inspection sticker, you could get pulled over 16 different times in 16 different towns, and written up for the same violations each time

The other thing covered in the piece was the fact that a lot of these little towns are majority black but, like Ferguson, have mostly white police officers, judges and prosecutors.

Also, as you said, public transportation can be a big problem for these folks, or rather the lack of it. As an example, the Canal Street Ferry in Nola used to run, if not 24/7, at least deep into the night. it was the main mode of transportation for a lot of the service sector employees that worked in the French Quarter. Its operation was funded by the tolls on the two bridges across the Miss. River. Well when the tolls were abolished there went the funding for the ferry. When the private company (of course) that runs the bus and street car service took over the ferry operations they stopped service at something like 10:30 at night. When that happened it left a lot of the service folks who work the bars, restaurants and hotels in the Quarter without transportation to get back home. They could take the bus across the bridge but the stops the bus made were very far from where most of those folks lived. I think it also required a transfer or two when using the bus. That left a lot of these folks scrambling to try to get transportation worked out for themselves.

chat said: Remember the guy in Ft. Lauderdale who committed vehicular homicide and is serving 4 years house arrest in his oceanview condo? Oh, the humanity!

It’s rough out there I’ll tell ya…it’s rough!

Hmmm…was Roger Goodell caught in a little oopsie moment?

I so hope so. Roger is a jerk.

The damndest thing is that the NFL has their own investigators. When local kids are considered for the draft, they show up by the vanload to check them out. Apparently no one could figure this Rice thing out?

Apparently no one could figure this Rice thing out?

Or they didn’t really want to. 👿

@7, to be Capt. Obvious for a moment, how in the world did they think she got knocked out to begin with? You don’t get knocked out by sweet kisses and caresses.

This is just residual blowback from the idiocy of Goodell giving Rice two games suspension. This is the type of thing we taught wannabe leaders to always guard against — if you check a box instead of searching your soul and doing what it is the hardest thing to do, you get blowback.

Welcome to Leadership 101 Mr. Goodell.

Prolix: Goodell and the rest (Ravens front office?) didn’t even want to go there or ask that question. I believe they thought “if we don’t go there we don’t have to deal with what probably happened.”. Then they put their heads in the sand, put fingers in ears and just ignored it.

For chat: Lamar=Lamar University, Beaumont Tx. Indeed a worthy opponent for the mighty Aggies! 😉 Next on the schedule are Rice and SMU, who conveniently lost their coach this week when he resigned. Could the Aggies have it any easier?

Oh yay!! FX is rerunning American Horror Story-Coven!!! First episode tonight. Loved this season of the show.

No justice, if you’re a woman.
Oscar Pistorious got acquitted of murder.

Jeebus. And it all started with a fender-bender that wasn’t even her fault.

I see the stopped for driving while poor crap here all the time too. In SoCal it’s usually Hispanics, not blacks, but same general idea. I’m older and white and learned to drive in Boston (’nuff said, right?) but no stops so far. (Mind you, I’d just as soon continue not being stopped :D. What I mean is the Hispanics who are driving much better than me should be stopped even less!)

quioxte: Bill Maher said the illegal Mexicans in L.A. are probably the best drivers around because they sooo don’t want to be pulled over for any reason. Therefore, they won’t speed, drive recklessly or anything like that. Ha!

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