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 and 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. Details:

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 crimes 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.

NEXT: Black Actress Daniele Watts Handcuffed, Detained in Studio City for Kissing her Husband in Public [UPDATE: With Links to Audio!]

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  1. Wow. What a racket. You’d think the Feds would look into these kinds of obvious rackets.

    1. Why? To improve their own?

    2. This is what you call improvisation, and it’s the mark of good police work.

      It’s not like the residents of Ferguson have much in the way of assets that could be forfeited.

      The Ferguson cops have to make do with small fines that have the potential to grow large.

    3. Yeah, thank God our benevolent government did away with debtors prison.

  2. If they don’t want to pay the price of civilization, they can move to SOMALIA!!!@!

    1. PLEASE go post that in the comments at MoJo and count the heads that explode!

      1. done, sort of.

  3. You know how the citizens of ferguson could get some of their money back? Take New England -5 1/2 over the Vikings.

    1. We are your overlords.

      1. It’s at Minnesota so the Patriots are travelling to the land of the ice and snow. And all-you-can-eat buffets.

  4. 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.

    See, the answer is more public transit and trains. Even Reason admits it.

    1. Your grasp of the progressive mind is truly frightening.

  5. No reason to be shocked.

    In most countries, the police and judiciary are basically organized banditry. They point guns at you and take your money. Almost always, almost everywhere. We had a brief period where it wasn’t the case, but if you can read the writing on the wall, you know that period has been coming to a close for a long time.

    The Commerce Clause is now held to allow the feds to do anything not expressly forbidden in the constitution. So just last week, the Dems turned their attention to the few things expressly forbidden to the feds by the constitution, starting with the First Amendment.

  6. And yet, it’s the business owners in the area who are taking the brunt of this anger…not the local government.…..4b8d0.html

    Starts off with one store owner, whose business was damaged and looted to the tune of $100,000. And there are dozens that suffered like he did. And in many cases, insurance won’t cover it, because they deem it an act of “terrorism”

    1. Here’s a great quote from an immigrant from Thailand (not the kind that Reason wants so as to drive down labor costs, the ones that are actually good for the economy that come here and start businesses)

      “I tell you the truth,” he said in broken English. “I’m not feeling safe anymore with just glass. I worry about what the courts do. Indictment or whatever ? why would you hurt people who are not your enemies? I cook free for poor people sometimes. I help people.””

      But keep apologizing for the rioters…

      1. (not the kind that Reason wants so as to drive down labor costs, the ones that are actually good for the economy that come here and start businesses)

        What if his business is pot and ass-sex?

        1. Is he Mexican? If not, then no.

      2. looks like someone’s sucking up and trying to get the job of minster in charge of determining the worth of potential immigrants.

        1. A job like being in charge of Ellis Island in the libertarian days of open borders, you mean?

          1. I’m pretty sure those guys didn’t try to discern who might open a business or alternatively who would end up digging ditches.

  7. It would be nice this issue started getting more attention in the mainstream media, but I’m not getting my hopes up. I suspect there are a lot of people who don’t care because it is only affecting “criminals” and poor people. Nevermind the fact that losing your job because you’re sitting in jail for an unpaid speeding ticket only makes you poorer, less able to pay the fines, and more likely to engage in other “criminal” activity.

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Brian Doherty and MJ for noticing and shining light on this.

    I spent my teens, twenties and into my thirties deep in the middle of this issue. I got at least 50 tickets, multiple impounded vehicles, jailed and beaten up repeatedly and generally victimized by the justice system. I’m writing a book about it all ( albiet, very slowly.)

    There are many more elements of tyranny involved in this, and it’s not limited to revenue streams. Cops rely on petty infractions to get their camel nose under the tent of anyone they suspect of being criminal. They selectively enforce these laws with that goal in mind. A huge percentage of these tickets are flatly untrue and just an excuse to question, roust, search and harass people who fit the profile each cop has developed of who is a criminal.

    1. Cops are taught who, statistically is apt to commit crimes and how to spot them. Most criminals are young, poor, dress a certain way, and can be found in certain areas. It’s not race although race is a part of it.

      If you have the misfortune of matching this, your chances of getting victimized by the cops skyrocket. Once a cop decides you’re a suspect, he’ll rain punishment upon you, not for evidence of an actual crime, but because he’s already decided you are guilty of something, somewhere. That’s when the petty charges get thrown at you until something sticks.

      Basically we have a de-facto dress code. Violate it and punishment is quick and severe. You don’t have to speed to get speeding tickets, or any other infraction. Cops know how hard it is to fight these cases and they know they just screwed you royally by ticketing you. They intend to because they think they know who deserves it.

      Most of my harassment was because of having long hair, tattoos and riding motorcycles/driving hot rods. It used to be “proof” that you were up to no good.

  9. Lots of these cases arise from the purely procedural crimes 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.

    I can’t believe the police aren’t seizing the cars and selling them.

  10. Golly, maybe some of these people should stop ‘rolling through stop signs’, ‘driving without licenses/registration/insurance’, ‘looting the liquor stores’.

  11. Golly gee whiz, maybe we should re-think our draconian response to minor paperwork violations and then we could stop allowing the cops to charge people for petty and trite things that are easily lied about, like not completely stopping at the funny looking octagons, regardless of the presence of other vehicles. Then the government would have to cut back on their bribes they give to unions and poor people could more easily feed their children. Then maybe they’d be less inclined to riot. Yah think?

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