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.

…..you 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.