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.
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.”