Missouri City to Pay $3.25 Million to Settle ‘Debtors’ Prison’ Lawsuit

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A Missouri city will pay $3.25 million to settle a federal lawsuit that accused the municipality of wrongfully jailing at least 7,000 people in a so-called debtors’ prison scheme, in which people arrested over minor infractions were forced to pay exorbitant fines or face more time in jail, court records show.

Maplewood, a St. Louis suburb of about 8,000 residents, will pay back the people who were jailed and the more than 20,000 people who paid the city fines and fees from 2011 to 2021, according to ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy organization that filed the suit in 2016 and announced the settlement last week.

“For years, the City of Maplewood wrote thousands of tickets to raise millions of dollars in revenue,” Nathaniel Carroll, a lawyer at ArchCity Defenders, said in a statement that maintained that the city’s system was unconstitutional. The city’s actions, he added, had “resulted in poor people, and mostly Black people, who were jailed for days at a time until Maplewood had extorted as much money as possible from them.”

The City of Maplewood did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on Tuesday, and its Police Department declined to comment.

The settlement ends a legal saga that began shortly after the death of Michael Brown, a Black teenager who was fatally shot in 2014 by Darren Wilson, a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., another St. Louis suburb. The killing prompted intense scrutiny of police departments in St. Louis County municipalities, including Maplewood, where about 14 percent of residents are Black and where suspicions about the city’s ticketing and jailing system had long been brewing.

One of the plaintiffs in ArchCity Defenders’ suit, Frank Williams, a 62-year-old Black resident of Maplewood, said in a statement that he had spent more than 14 days in jail for “failure to produce insurance ID,” a minor infraction, because he could not afford to pay the fee.

“We got treated bad,” he said.

Most of the victims in the scheme were low-income people who were commuting on Maplewood’s major roads between home, work and school, ArchCity Defenders said.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, states that “out of a desire to profit” from people, Maplewood implemented “an unlawful pay-to-play system.”

Under that system, the lawsuit contends, people charged with minor counts would be issued arrest warrants with “insurmountable warrant bond fees.” People would be unable to make the payment, and they would face a lose-lose choice, according to the suit: Sit in jail; spend money to pay off the entire warrant bond fee, which could be $300 to $500; or hire, and pay, a lawyer.

To gain access to the city’s court and receive information about their case or charges, those arrested in Maplewood would first have to pay off the warrant bonds. The scheme was “effectively locking the courthouse doors to individuals who cannot afford to pay,” the lawsuit states.

Other suburbs in the state face similar accusations of trapping people in procedural mazes that drain them of money through murky rules for bonds and fines. In Ferguson and Florissant, lawsuits accuse the cities of creating an unconstitutional modern-day debtors’ prison that puts impoverished people behind bars.

The City of Jennings, another suburb in St. Louis County, paid $4.75 million in 2016 to settle a similar lawsuit accusing officials of orchestrating a debtors’ prison scheme.

The lawsuit in Maplewood appears to have caused a degree of retreat, according to ArchCity Defenders. Since 2016, when the suit was filed, Maplewood’s court revenue has decreased 64 percent.

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