The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August of last year was one of the major flashpoints involving aggressive policing that triggered a closer examination of the abuses that arise when police are used as revenue generators, with people being stopped, arrested, fined, losing their licenses, and jailed for minor violations. These can have devastating effects, especially for poorer people who may not have the ready resources to immediately pay whatever initial fine is levied on them, and end up in a nightmare of escalating penalties
The judge in that town was notorious for using the judicial system to generate revenue and he was forced out of office once the spotlight fell on the fact that he had essentially created debtor’s prisons. The new municipal court judge who replaced him in June is trying to wipe the slate clean and create a better relationship.
Municipal court judge Donald McCullin, appointed in June, ordered that all arrest warrants issued in the city before 31 December 2014 be withdrawn.
Defendants will receive new court dates along with options for disposing of their cases, such as payment plans or community service. Fines may be commuted for indigent people.
The Justice Department specifically said Ferguson’s municipal court practices caused significant harm to many people with cases pending as minor municipal code violations turned into multiple arrests, jail time, and payments that exceeded the cost of the original ticket many times over.
McCullin ordered instead that if an arrest warrant is issued for a minor traffic violation, the defendant will not be incarcerated, but will be released on their own recognizance and given another court date, the city said.
“These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the Court … and giving many residents a fresh start,” said McCullin in a statement.
He added that many people who have had driver’s licenses suspended will be able to obtain them and start driving again. In the past, the city’s director of revenue would suspend a defendant’s driver’s license solely for failing to appear in court or failing to pay a fine.
This should be done in other cities too.