Thirteen suburbs that ring St. Louis, MO were sued by the state’s Attorney General last week. The lawsuits claimed that the local governments had breached a state law that requires them to report the percentage of revenue earned from fines for traffic violations. The law further seeks to stifle efforts to derive profit from fines by requiring proceeds over 30 percent to be submitted to the state.
Five of the lawsuits were against municipalities that had failed to file their reports, while four were sued for submitting reports with no percentage calculated. Four more local governments were sued for earning revenue above the legal limit.
The lawsuits come four months after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager shot by police officer Darren Wilson, who is white, in Ferguson, a suburb northwest of St. Louis. In the wake of almost daily protests in Ferguson and elsewhere immediately after the event and since a grand jury failed to indict Wilson last month, several local governments were accused of harassing and profiting from the poor and minorities, who are disproportionately ticketed for minor traffic infractions.
For example, ArchCity Defenders, a legal aid organization that represents indigent defendants in the St. Louis area, published a paper soon after the incident that detailed alarming practices followed by nearby local governments. After studying traffic-ticketing of area residents for five years, the organization began a court-watching program due to numerous complaints from clients who alleged racially motivated traffic persecution.
In Ferguson, for instance, ArchCity found that 86 percent of vehicles stopped by police “involved a black motorist, although blacks make up just 67 percent of the population.” African Americans held by the police in Ferguson were also “almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1 percent versus 6.9 percent) and twice as likely to be arrested (10.4 percent versus 5.2 percent),” the report noted, though contraband was found more frequently on whites stopped by the police (34 percent versus 21.7 percent).
Similar statistics have come to light in other jurisdictions. In Alamance County, NC, for example, a 2012 investigation by local media Indy discovered that Latino drivers were more than twice as likely to arrested as their non-Latino counterparts, while police in Ferndale near Detroit are fighting accusations of racial profiling after a study issued by the American Civil Liberties Union in October reported a disproportionate number of motorists ticketed by the department.
The issues raised in Ferguson and in Staten Island, NY — where Eric Garner when a white police officer used an illegal chokehold to subdue him — have prompted other cities and states to more closely review their ticketing practices. For instance, the police chief in Omaha, NE vowed last week to keep his department on the cutting edge of policies and education against discriminatory profiling.
There are, too, those lawsuits in Missouri, though Ferguson was not one of the jurisdictions targeted by attorney general Chris Koster, a Democrat. The suburb’s report for the last fiscal year is not yet due, so Koster said he could not review police ticketing practices there.