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Lauren Rosenfeld for Al Jazeera America

€'˜Poverty violations'™ help fuel racial divide in St. Louis County

Critics accuse system of aggressive ticketing of unfairly targeting African-Americans

Tinnisha Jenkins spends a lot of time in the courthouses of St. Louis County. She’s not a lawyer, but a resident of the town of Overland who accumulated thousands of dollars in fines between 2011 and 2013 from 11 different municipalities within the 90-city county.

Her story is a common one in St. Louis County, just west of the city of St. Louis. There, some municipalities have seven times the number of arrests warrants as residents, a majority of which are for low-level traffic violations. In the case of the 40-year-old Jenkins, a police officer from the town of Hazelwood ran the plates of her car as she was pulling into a parking lot. The officer told her the license plate on her car wasn't visible., but he did not issue her a citation.  However, after discovering that she had a suspended license due to unpaid tickets in other municipalities, the officer had her car towed.

Thomas Harvey is a defense attorney in St. Louis, who said that, in order to pay for their police and other services, municipalities in St. Louis County aggressively ticket drivers—often targeting African-Americans.
Joel Van Haren for Al Jazeera America

In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, the municipal court system in St. Louis County has come under fire, with critics branding it as an oppressive system that has contributed to the community’s deep distrust of both police and public officials.

Most of the municipalities in St. Louis County maintain their own police forces, and aggressive ticketing is necessary to fund the operations of each separate policing entity. In some municipalities, fines from traffic violations account for more than 30 percent of a town’s revenue.  

“The budget for these cities is set, not by the judge or the prosecutor, this is by the city manager,” said Thomas Harvey, an attorney in St. Louis who founded Arch City Defenders to assist low-income members of the community. “They set up a budget that says, ‘We’re going to collect $2.7 million this year from our municipal court.’ That’s a lot of money to collect.”

Targeting black community?

Harvey believes this system of fundraising for public services negatively impacts the poor. He refers to common, low-level citations, such as failure to register a vehicle or provide proof of insurance, as “poverty violations.”

A small traffic violation can multiply into a financial burden. For example, according to Harvey, one traffic stop might result in the trifecta of a speeding ticket, a missing proof of insurance and an unregistered vehicle, which could cost $1,000. And it’s conceivable for a motorist to pretty quickly rack up multiple citations for, say, not registering their car, in different St. Louis County cities since each one is relatively small, has its own police force and most are known to ticket aggressively.

“[People] are facing daily choices regarding their poverty, that it makes sense not to pay to get the car registered, because you’re trying to keep your light bill on,” said Harvey. “And if that’s your choice, it’s always going to make sense to pay your light bill, feed your kids, pay your rent, before you go get the vehicle registered.”

According to Harvey, the system appears to sweep up many more blacks in the community than their white peers. A typical scene in a local court, he said, involves a black defendant appearing before a white judge, prosecutor and police officer.

It’s a pattern that’s also apparent to Jenkins, who says the County’s various courts are routinely filled with African-Americans. “If you look at the number of African-Americans who are [at courts] in municipalities that are not predominantly African American, that has to say something,” Jenkins said. “And everybody is here for a traffic offense. The majority of the time, very minor traffic infractions.”

That characterization is refuted by Ronald Brockmeyer, a municipal judge in the cities of Ferguson and Breckenridge Hills who is also a prosecutor in the neighboring towns of Florissant, Vinita Park and Dellwood. He said that he doesn’t believe that officers are unfairly targeting black members of the community. He added that, in his role as a judge, he isn’t either.

“It doesn’t make a difference whether they’re white, or black, or yellow before me,” Brockmeyer said. “I’m not even looking up. I’m looking at the charge and their names. I read their names, and their race has nothing to do with it.”

Tough cycle to break

Tinnisha Jenkins enters the courthouse in Hazelwood, Missouri, in early October to pay a fine for driving with a suspended license.
Joel Van Haren for Al Jazeera America

Jenkins said that the suspension of her license as a result of the various traffic citations throughout St. Louis County has made it increasingly difficult for her to get to work.  There are a few public transportation options in the region. But she notes that they are inefficient and therefore not a realistic alternative.

“If you’re a driver, and you use your vehicle to get back and forth from work, to take care of whatever business you have to take care of, it’s gonna be very difficult not to do that,” said Harvey. “It’s like a never-ending cycle.”

Jenkins is trying to clear her record by paying all the tickets she has collected since 2011, but it is not an easy task. She has managed to get her license partially reinstated, which allows her limited use of her car, for example to drive to work.

“It can exhaust you financially, really it can. Either you’re paying an attorney or you got court fines in this municipality, it can be very expensive,” she explained.

“These municipalities, they don’t care. They’re out to get money. And they’re going to get it however they can.”

In "Ferguson: Race and Justice in the U.S.," Fault Lines returns to the city where Mike Brown was shot and killed to investigate how and why black communities feel targeted by law enforcement—and if those sworn to protect operate with impunity. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Monday, December 15, at 9 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 9 p.m. Pacific time and again Saturday, December 20, at 7 p.m. Eastern and 7 p.m. Pacific.   

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