“With liberty and justice for all”
Posted September 10, 2014on:
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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