POLITICS

As Reform Arrives In Ferguson, Neighboring Municipal Courts Stay Out Of The Spotlight

03/20/2015 03:39 pm ET | Updated Mar 20, 2015
MICHAEL B. THOMAS via Getty Images

BERKELEY, Mo. -- “How much will you be able to pay tonight?”

It’s Thursday night in Berkeley, Missouri, and about 75 people are seated on brown metal folding chairs in a wood-paneled room in a strip mall, near a daycare, a Hispanic community center and a tutoring center. The municipal court is in session, and an attorney filling in for the city’s part-time judge is in charge of helping the city collect money. "Pay as much as you can," she tells one defendant, and asks another if the payment will be in full.

Media attention Thursday night was focused on the municipal court in Ferguson, where a state appeals court judge appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court effectively took over the city’s judicial system on an indefinite basis following a blistering report from the Justice Department that found the judge was in league with city officials to raise revenues. In Ferguson, newly appointed Judge Roy Richter lowered outstanding fines for defendants, as many of the city’s fines were much higher than those in other St. Louis County municipalities, and signaled he was looking to expand the city’s community service program to give defendants an alternative.

But here in Berkeley, a city of just over 9,000 residents that directly neighbors the larger city of Ferguson, municipal court continued without the hullabaloo. The term “community service” never came up. One man who declined to share his name was facing a $200 fine just for having an unlicensed vehicle parked in his yard, a fine he said he could not afford. When the acting judge, Felicia Ezell -- an area lawyer who said she was filling in for the normal part-time judge -- asked if he was going to pay his fine in full, the man said no and asked for a continuance.

The Justice Department report on Ferguson said the city should allow partial payments on money owed to the city. But in Berkeley, the judge refused to accept anything less than $50, and implied that defendants would be jailed if they didn’t come up with the money before their next court appearance.

One man who owed the city $300 was told that this month would be his last chance to try to get the money together. “I suggest you have a balance outside of your payment, because the judge is not going to issue another continuance,” Ezell told the man.

“I don’t have the money, but I will tomorrow when I get paid,” one woman who was in court on a speeding ticket told Ezell.

“OK, now you know we’ll be expecting to see you here tomorrow then,” Ezell replied.

The situation in Berkeley demonstrates just how difficult it will be to untangle the problems with municipal courts in St. Louis County, given the ingrained role that they play as revenue generators for small cities.

While the lack of diversity within the government in majority-black Ferguson has been cited as a source of many of the city’s problems, that hasn’t been part of the problem here in nearby Berkeley. The mayor, the entire city council, the police chief, the regular municipal judge and even Thursday’s acting municipal judge are all black, in this city where African-Americans make up 81 percent of the population.

But the city’s black representation hasn’t prevented it from using its court system as a significant revenue source. The city brought in more than $1 million through its courts in the fiscal year that ended in June 2013, and court fees make up nearly 11 percent of the city budget.

When an armed 18-year-old was shot by a Berkeley police officer here in December, Mayor Theodore Hoskins defended his city and tried to set it apart from its infamous neighbor.

“We are different from the city of Ferguson,” Hoskins said at the time.

In many ways, Berkeley is different. For one, its traffic stop data shows much different patterns than its neighbor. Fewer black drivers are stopped than would be expected given their percentage of the population, and officers actually stopped twice as many white drivers than would be anticipated based on their demographics, according to data published by the Missouri attorney general’s office.

But Berkeley still relied on ticketing to make up a significant part of its overall budget, and in 2010 even put up a speed camera along the highway, in contravention of state and county rules. The operation was eventually shut down by the highway department.

In Ferguson on Thursday, the new judge promised defendants they wouldn’t be jailed if they showed up in court, and a number of attorneys were on hand to observe the process. In Berkeley, just two defendants on Thursday were represented by lawyers. The acting municipal judge told one man challenging his case that he would have to come back on another night. Berkeley’s prosecutor, she said, wasn’t even there.

Ryan J. Reilly contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said no defendants in Berkeley's court Thursday were represented by lawyers. In fact, two were represented by lawyers.

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