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Vol. 79/No. 8      March 9, 2015

(front page)
Ferguson, Mo., lawsuit exposes debtors’
prisons for traffic tickets

Six months after Michael Brown was killed by cop Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and after ongoing protests spread nationwide over police abuse there, a class-action lawsuit was filed Feb. 8 in federal court challenging city rulers’ practice of jailing low-income workers for outstanding traffic tickets or other infractions and the subhuman conditions they’re subjected to while incarcerated.

“The City’s modern debtors’ prison scheme has been increasingly profitable to the City of Ferguson, earning it millions of dollars over the past several years,” the suit says. “It has also devastated the City’s poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel jailings.” The suit seeks damages and an injunction against these practices.

The suit was filed on behalf of 11 plaintiffs by Equal Justice Under Law, ArchCity Defenders and St. Louis University School of Law. A similar lawsuit was filed against nearby Jennings, Missouri.

Last year cops and courts in Ferguson, a city of 21,000 residents, two-thirds of whom are African-American, issued more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household, nearly 2.2 warrants for every single adult. Most were in cases involving unpaid debt for tickets. Court fines and fees have become Ferguson’s second-largest source of income, netting the city $2.6 million in 2013.

“They’re robbing us blind,” Markese Mull, a friend of Brown’s family in Ferguson, told the Militant in a phone interview Feb. 23. “They’ll ticket you for a $10 traffic violation and then tack on $100 in warrant delivery fees and another $100 in court costs.

“At one point I had tickets from several municipalities amounting to more than $2,000. I gradually got it down to about $600. But when I hit a tight spot and could only make a $50 payment, they refused to accept it and kept tacking on court fees until it went back up to $1,700. The system is not for working people.”

“The city disputes any contention that individuals in any specific economic group were targeted for unfair treatment,” said a statement issued by Ferguson authorities Feb. 9.

But the experiences of the plaintiffs over the past several years tell a different story.

Inmates at the city jail “are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their congested cells,” the suit says. “They are kept in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean underwear.”

One plaintiff, Alfred Morris, 62, is a disabled veteran who was arrested in 2011 and again in 2012. Both times he “was forced to stay on mats that had bed bugs and lice.” Anthony Kimble, a 53-year-old machine operator arrested in 2013, “was forced to sleep next to a dirty toilet” because there was only one bed for every three or four prisoners.

In a number of cases workers released after paying their fines were handed over to cops in a neighboring town and imprisoned for fees owed there, affecting their ability to get or keep jobs. Some were held in jail for two weeks or more and were not informed of their right to an attorney or provided with one.

“Many impoverished people end up paying thousands of dollars over a period of many years to the City based on a small number of relatively inexpensive initial tickets,” the suit says, in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Keilee Fant, 37, the lead plaintiff, is a single mother who works as a certified nurse’s assistant. Over the past 20 years the city of Ferguson has jailed her more than a dozen times for not being able to make payments on old traffic tickets.

Herbert Nelson Jr., 26, another plaintiff, has been arrested and jailed three times in Jennings over the past year and a half. Each time, after paying hundreds of dollars in “fines” there he was then taken to the Ferguson jail and ordered to pay hundreds more for outstanding warrants and fees, some for the same old tickets.

“We’re not criminals. It’s just driving,” he told National Public Radio, “and we’re paying these big punishments,” including, in his case, losing his driver’s license.

Meanwhile, “a lawsuit against the Ferguson, Missouri, police department over a pattern of racially discriminatory tactics by officers” is being prepared by the Justice Department, CNN reported Feb. 19, which is expected to take up some of the same issues raised in the class-action case.

John Hawkins in Chicago contributed to this article.
Related article:
Inmates protest barbaric conditions in Texas prison
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