Friday, May 04, 2018

Maplewood, MO Bond Trap Case Moves Forward

One of the more arcane, but important, issues to gain renewed spotlight in the wake of Ferguson is how the deeply fragmented municipal structure of the greater St. Louis area encourages abusive policing practices. Basically, the area around St. Louis is divided into countless tiny independent municipalities, each which often has their own police force, governmental units, judicial system, and so on.

It's not really economical for each of these small towns to run their own mini-government, and so many of them have resorted to policing-for-profit. They squeeze out revenue from vulnerable community members (often people of color) by exceedingly aggressive traffic law enforcement, predatory bond practices, overpolicing of minor regulatory violations, and other like practices (The DOJ report on Ferguson highlighted these practices as part of its findings that the Ferguson PD routinely violated the law and operated with an eye towards revenue generation rather than serving its own community).

Right now, for example, there is a lawsuit against the city of Maplewood, Missouri (population: 8,046) alleging that it has a deliberate policy of trapping poor motorists facing traffic finds with bond payments that they can't afford to pay. The plaintiffs
assert the City automatically issues an arrest warrant whenever someone ticketed for violating its traffic and vehicle laws fails to pay a fine or appear in court. Once arrested, the motorist is allegedly presented with a Hobson's choice: Either pay a bond the amount of which was set in advance without any determination of his ability to pay it, or sit in jail possibly for days. The plaintiffs further contend that once a warrant has been issued, a motorist cannot avoid it by voluntarily returning to the municipal court or paying the outstanding fine, but must either submit to a custodial arrest or retain a lawyer to argue a motion before the municipal judge to vacate the warrant. If the court does not grant the motion, the motorist, whose presence in court the judge allegedly demands, will be arrested and jailed. Jail, the plaintiffs assert, is the means by which the City attempts to coerce the motorist into paying the bond to secure his release. The complaint indicates that the City's policy or custom involves additional steps that can ensnare motorists in repeated cycles of arrest, jailing, and pressure to pay a bond irrespective of their ability to do so. 
Today, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit allowed that claim to proceed, rejecting city arguments that it is immune from suit. This is a preliminary ruling completely detached from the substantive merits of the case (for technical reasons not worth going into, it's easier to sue cities compared to states for alleged constitutional violations); no doubt as the case proceeds there will be textured arguments about the specific nature of Maplewood's bond practices and any viable defenses that they can put forward.

Nonetheless, it is absolutely a good thing that this sort of behavior is being spotlighted and will now have to stand up to federal judicial scrutiny. This is a case worth keeping an eye on.

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