The judge in Ferguson, Missouri, who is accused of fixing traffic tickets for himself and colleagues while inflicting a punishing regime of fines and fees on the city’s residents, also owes more than $170,000 in unpaid taxes.
Ronald J Brockmeyer, whose court allegedly jailed impoverished defendants unable to pay fines of a few hundred dollars, has a string of outstanding debts to the US government dating back to 2007, according to tax filings obtained by the Guardian from authorities in Missouri.
Brockmeyer, 70, was this week singled out by Department of Justice investigators as being a driving force behind Ferguson’s strategy of using its municipal court to aggressively generate revenues. The policy has been blamed for a breakdown in relations between the city’s overwhelmingly white authorities and residents, two-thirds of whom are African American.
Investigators found Brockmeyer had boasted of creating a range of new court fees, “many of which are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful”. A city councilman opposing the judge’s reappointment was warned “switching judges would/could lead to loss of revenue”.
The class action lawsuit filed against Ferguson earlier this year alleges that the city violates the constitutional rights of defendants imprisoned over outstanding tickets and minor offences. It seeks compensation and asks a federal judge to force Ferguson to halt the practices.
“Once locked in the Ferguson jail, impoverished people owing debts to the city endure grotesque treatment. They 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 [and] they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood,” said one passage of the lawsuit, which went on to name several more hardships.
One of the plaintiffs – Roelif Carter, a 62-year-old disabled military veteran – alleges he was arrested and jailed for three days in Ferguson in 2010 after trying to pay the $100 monthly instalment for his outstanding traffic fines on the second day of the month rather than the first, when it was due. While living in “constant fear” he was arrested and jailed three more times in the following years when he was unable to pay the monthly charge, the lawsuit alleges.
“Most debtors in this country are not rounded up and jailed in brutal conditions,” said Alec Karakatsanis, a co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law and a lead attorney on the lawsuit. “But if you happen to owe your debts to a municipality in St Louis County, they are willing to let you languish there on a ransom.”
I think of things like this:
4 Hear this, you who trample upon the needy,
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
5 saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
6 that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and sell the refuse of the wheat?”
7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
8 Shall not the land tremble on this account,
and every one mourn who dwells in it,
and all of it rise like the Nile,
and be tossed about and sink again, like the Nile of Egypt?”
9 “And on that day,” says the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon,
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning,
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth upon all loins,
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son,
and the end of it like a bitter day. (Am 8:4–10).
That day of mourning was Good Friday and the Only Son is Jesus, who died to forgive such crimes of the powerful against the weak. I pray the good judge avail himself of the grace offered him while he still has time because the warning of Amos to men like him is terrifying. May God have mercy on him.