Ferguson's municipal court on Thursday held its first session since a Department of Justice report found the city operated a profit-driven system that heightened tensions among black residents for years before the fatal shooting of a black, unarmed 18-year-old by a white police officer last summer, an incident that led to widespread protests.
Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Roy Richter, who presided over the session, was put in place by the state Supreme Court days after the federal inquiry's release. He didn't directly address the circumstance behind his appointment.
Ronald Brockmeyer, the full-time lawyer and part-time judge who used to run the court, was removed after being identified in the federal report as one of several city officials who helped "fix" traffic tickets for colleagues and friends. He has since stepped down from similar posts as either a municipal judge or once- and twice-a-month prosecutor in four other nearby towns in north St. Louis County.
Richter, who was also given the power to overhaul court practices in Ferguson, immediately lowered the prices of some fines, making them comparable to other municipalities in Missouri. The judge slashed parking ticket fines by almost half from $102 to $52, and driving without insurance by $200 from $377 to $177, local news outlets reported.
"If you commit the same offense here (in Ferguson), in Chesterfield, or in Affton or anywhere else, the fine is going to be the same, and I think that's fair," KMOV News reported Richter as saying.
Some defendants took notice of the new approach immediately. "He was making it clear that he was trying to work with people," said defendant Chris Phillips, KMOV News reported.
But not everyone was impressed. "It's still a way of extracting money from poor people," said Michael-John Voss of the Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit legal clinic that is suing Ferguson and the adjacent town of Jennings over their municipal court practices, St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.
Richter issued an order Wednesday barring cameras from the courtroom in response to heavy media interest. Court officials instead set up a closed-circuit video feed for reporters in a City Hall work room.
Tiffany Beck, 44, came to court to fight a ticket for not having proper proof of insurance. Beck said an assistant Ferguson city prosecutor dismissed the ticket after she showed proof of insurance. "They're doing things a lot differently than before," she said.
The federal report said Ferguson used revenues from fines and fees to generate $3.1 million, or nearly one-quarter of its total $13.3 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year. It also faulted Ferguson for issuing an excessive number of arrest warrants when traffic-court offenders failed to pay their fines on time or missed court dates, with relatively minor violations then leading to jail time.
A St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department, in a separate investigation, both declined to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson, who resigned from the department after Michael Brown's shooting. The Justice Department report said Wilson acted in self-defense.
Local attorneys said they're optimistic that Richter's appointment will spur change not only in Ferguson's court system but also in the 80 other municipal courts spread across St. Louis County. But several expressed concern that Richter — in an apparent attempt to preserve the privacy of defendants, most of whom weren't accompanied by lawyers — spoke in hushed tones from the bench.
"I don't see any discernible difference," said Voss of the Arch City Defenders. "It's an open court issue. If you're whispering at the bench, it makes you distrust the system."
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press