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Meet The Missouri Town Where Everyone Is Under Arrest

Posted by on May. 5, 2015 at 10:59 AM
  • 3 Replies

A tiny town in Missouri has a minor-crime arrest rate that is 100 times the national average. According to a report covered by The Huffington PostBeverly Hills (not to be confused with Beverly Hills, Calif.) averages an astounding 1,087 arrests per 1,000 people on an annual basis, and they collect fines and fees that average $400 per resident, per year. These statistics shine a sharp light on using law enforcement for profit in towns and counties.

It’s not just Beverly Hills, either. Many towns around St. Louis County have come under fire recently for their profit-driven law enforcement practices. It’s so bad that Missouri’s attorney general filed suit last year for breaking state law regarding the use of traffic stops as a revenue generator.

“Everyone’s got a horror story about the police,” former St. Louis County police chief Tim Fitch said to The Huffington Post, in a different article. “And most of that horror story relates back to being ticketed for some minor violation.”

In other words, the horrors of Ferguson actually extend well beyond Ferguson, and reveal a serious, serious problem throughout St. Louis County and probably elsewhere. Officers in some of these places compete with each other to see who can rack up the most citations. They’re under pressure from city officials and courts to bring in the money, which leads to racist policies and harassment, and breaks the trust that’s supposed to exist between citizens and law enforcement.

The HuffPo article says that municipal courts in St. Louis County are at the heart of the situation. There are 90 municipalities, and 81 municipal courts, in the county alone. Ordinances are a problem, too. In some places, people need occupancy permits just to stay overnight inside city limits, so sleeping over at the house of someone living in the next town over can get you fined if you don’t have that permit.

Some in St. Louis County call traffic violations, driving on a suspended license or with expired registration, and the like, “poverty violations,” according to a story in the Washington Post. One major misconception among people there is that appearing in court without the ability to pay a fine will result in getting arrested, so they don’t show up to court. That results in an arrest warrant, which gets them harassed and arrested the next time police stop them for something.

As such, these practices disproportionately hurt the poorest people, because they are least able to pay their fines, and most likely to wind up in jail because of it. If you can’t pay your fines, you’re fined for that. If you don’t show up to court, they issue a warrant for your arrest. Municipal courts are very unforgiving towards people who can’t pay their fines.

It’s so easy to look at these people and say, “Well, don’t break the law and you won’t have to worry about it.” How many of those who would say this still speed when they’re running late, though? How many roll through stop signs, or run red lights? How many of them have forgotten to renew their license or registration? When you can pay your own fines, it’s quite easy to ignore your own minor violations and say, “Don’t break the law.”

Furthermore, in a town like Beverly Hills, where you might get ticketed and fined for virtually anything, simply obeying the law isn’t so easy.

Cash-strapped municipalities, looking for cash wherever they can get it, often turn to fines to cover costs. This is not limited to St. Louis County; lots of places all over the country use fines as revenue generators. However, the Police Executive Research Forum has never encountered such egregious profit motives as the ones in St. Louis County. They found that some of these places arrest people for minor crimes at 10 times the rate of serious crimes. The national average is less than two arrests for minor crimes for every arrest for serious crimes.

In their report, they said:

“The dramatic difference in arrest rates in so many municipalities in St. Louis County suggests that some agencies are devoting disproportionate attention and resources to less serious crime issues. This seems to be occurring even in communities that have problems with more serious crime.”

Missouri’s lawmakers have been working on legislation that would come down hard on municipalities that use their courts to raise revenue. Perhaps if they worked with town like Beverly Hills, Ferguson, and others to reform their criminal justice systems, and started focusing more heavily on serious crimes, some of their costs would go down. Whatever they do, the time of using law enforcement as a major revenue generator needs to end. Maybe, if that ends, some other problems (such as police harassment), will lessen.

by on May. 5, 2015 at 10:59 AM
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by New Member on May. 5, 2015 at 11:01 AM

Beverly Hills is barely a town.  It's more speed trap than anything else.  I avoid it whenever possible.

by Member on May. 5, 2015 at 11:32 AM

"It's so easy to look at these people and say, 'Well, don't break the law and you won't have to worry about it'.  How many of those who would say this still speed when they're running late, though?  How many roll through stop signs, or run red lights?"

That passage bothers me so much.  DON'T BREAK THE LAW!!!  Traffic laws are laws and should be obeyed, regardless of whether there is a police officer around to bust you.  Traffic laws were created for a reason.  I wish  more privileged Americans could experience how people live in  countries that lack traffic laws, where taking a taxi from the airport to your hotel requires a xanax and a blindfold and the roads are anarchy.  Accidents are more likely to happen when people don't obey the traffic laws.  The author seems to dismiss running a red light or rolling through a stop sign as minor offenses, but people have died when irresponsible drivers did exactly that.  So it's ok to break the law because there's only a 1/1000 chance of something bad happening as a result?  What a stupid argument, the author needs to go back to journalism school.  I couldn't even focus on what the author is arguing, but i assume that--whatever point they are trying to make--their position is weak since they had to reach to defend it.  Where did this article come from, op?

by Platinum Member on May. 6, 2015 at 5:05 AM
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Just inside the courthouse/gymnasium door in Florissant, two police officers and a court clerk check people in. In the middle of the gym, about 200 chairs sit neatly aligned in rows. Court has been in session for over an hour now, but most of the seats are still occupied. About 80 percent of the people in the gym tonight are black, even though blacks make up just 27 percent of the town. According to statistics compiled by Missouri’s attorney general’s office, 71 percent of the people pulled over by Florissant police in 2013 were black. The search and arrest rates for blacks were also twice as high as those rates for whites, even though whites were more likely to be found with contraband, a contradiction that has also been widely reported in Ferguson.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, blacks make up less than eight percent of the Florissant police force. The judge and both prosecutors are white. In nearly all the towns in St. Louis County, the prosecutors and judges in these courts are part-time positions, and are not elected, but appointed by the mayor, town council, or city manager. According to the 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.

“I had a felony criminal case in state court a few weeks ago,” says a local defense attorney, who asked not to be quoted by name. “Sometimes criminal cases can get contentious. You have to do everything you can to defend your client, and sometime your interaction with a prosecutor can get combative. A few days later, I was representing a client who had a few warrants in a municipal court where the same prosecutor I was just battling with is now the judge. Is my client is going to get a fair hearing? You hope so. But it sure looks like a conflict to me.”

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