In Which I Am the Last Person to Read Radley Balko’s Epic Report on St. Louis Co. Policing as Profiting from Poverty

In Which I Am the Last Person to Read Radley Balko’s Epic Report on St. Louis Co. Policing as Profiting from Poverty September 17, 2014

and I’m posting it here just in case I’m actually second-to-last.

…The officer found that Bolden had four arrest warrants in three separate jurisdictions: the towns of Florissant and Hazelwood in St. Louis County and the town of Foristell in St. Charles County. All of the warrants were for failure to appear in court for traffic violations. Bolden hadn’t appeared in court because she didn’t have the money. 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.

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 time Bolden got to St. Charles County, it had been well over 36 hours since the accident. “I hadn’t slept,” she says. “I was still in my same clothes. I was starting to lose my mind.” That’s when she says a police officer told her that if she couldn’t post bond, they’d keep her in jail until May. “I just freaked out,” she says. “I said, ‘What about my babies? Who is going to take care of my babies?’” She says the officer just shrugged.

“It’s different inside those walls,” Bolden says. “They treat you like you don’t have any emotions. I know I have a heavy foot. I have kids. I have to work to support them. I’ve also been taking classes. So I’m late a lot. And when I’m late, I speed. But I’m still a human being.”

That was Bolden’s second arrest. In 2009 she was arrested in the town of Bel-Ridge for a warrant on a speeding ticket. On that occasion she remained in jail for three days before Michael-John Voss, co-founder of the legal aid group ArchCity Defenders, helped get her out. This time, Voss couldn’t help right away. Foristell holds municipal court only once every two weeks. She would have to stay in jail.

“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.

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.

Bolden’s bond was set at $1,700. No one she knew had that kind of money. Bolden broke down; she cried, she screamed, and she swore. She was given a psychological evaluation, and then put on suicide watch. She finds that memory particularly humiliating. Bolden would remain in jail for two weeks, until Foristell’s next municipal court session. She wouldn’t let her children come visit her. “I didn’t want them to see me like that,” she says. “I didn’t want them to think it was normal, that it was okay for one of us to be in jail. I missed them so much. But I wasn’t going to let them see me like that.”

While in jail, she missed a job interview. She fell behind in her paralegal studies. When she finally got her day in court, she was told to change out of her jail jumpsuit into the same clothes she had worn for three days straight, and that had been sitting in a bag for the previous two weeks. She was brought into the courtroom to face the judge, handcuffed, in dirty clothes that had been marinated in her own filth. “I was funky, I was sad, and I was mad,” she says. “I smelled bad. I was handcuffed. I missed my kids. I didn’t feel like a person anymore.”

Voss was able to get Bolden’s bond reduced to $700, but that was still too much for Bolden or her family to pay. The judge also told Voss that he wouldn’t consider an indigency motion until the next session, which meant another two weeks in jail. Bolden was taken back to her cell. The next day, her mother borrowed against a life insurance policy to post her daughter’s bond. “It doesn’t just affect you,” Bolden says. “It affects your family. Your kids. Your friends. My mother is disabled. And she had to help me out. My sister had to put her life on hold to watch my kids.”

Stories like Bolden’s abound across the St. Louis area. And despite the efforts of the ArchCity Defenders and legal aid clinics like those at Saint Louis University and Washington University, the vast majority of the people swept up into the St. Louis County municipal court system don’t have attorneys to inform them of their rights or to negotiate with judges and prosecutors. …

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations. In a white paper released last month (PDF), the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town’s only approved garbage collection service. They hadn’t been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash.

“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.”

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.

more, including thoughts on how this situation arises; an appalling criminalization-of-parenting-while-poor story; zoning as a weapon; and how overcriminalization affects especially vulnerable groups like homeless people and children coming out of the foster care system.


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