"It's unfortunate because I'd love to handle these people with ordinance violations piling up," says Richard Kroeger, the assistant district defender in St. Louis. "But we are constantly fighting for funding, and that's just enough to effectively represent the clients we have now."

"It feels good, really good," Bain says. "Steph — she's my little guardian angel."

Through a contract with the BEACH Project that began in June 2013, ArchCity Defenders has been able to help fill that gap.

"Getting a person off the streets and into housing, sometimes there are legal barriers for that," says McAnnar. "They might have five warrants out for their arrest for traffic violations, and minor ordinance violations in the municipalities. This all might keep them out of certain housing units and job-training programs."

Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, came up with the idea for the group when he was a SLU law student.
Eric Fogleman
Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, came up with the idea for the group when he was a SLU law student.
Michael-John Voss has many clients who have been severely affected by simple 
traffic tickets.
Eric Fogleman
Michael-John Voss has many clients who have been severely affected by simple traffic tickets.

Adds Harvey: "And after getting a job, they're able to focus on noncrisis issues, like if they've been estranged from their family while being homeless. They can get child support forgiven, they're able to see kids and repair damage that was done."

The BEACH Project has led to other grants and contracts for ArchCity Defenders, allowing the agency to hire two staff attorneys, including Stephanie Lummus, a 2012 SLU law grad who had been volunteering for the agency while in school. The bolstered staff now allows ArchCity Defenders to handle hundreds of indigent cases at a time.

Yet for all the good work they do, not everyone — especially the powers that be in the small municipalities that border St. Louis — is pleased with ArchCity Defenders.

John McAnnar recalls a time when he attempted to introduce himself to the judge in a north-county municipality but was quickly cut off.

"I know who you are," the magistrate barked back in mock indignation. "You're the ones taking money out of my pocket."

The judge was only half-joking. For many St. Louis municipalities, especially the poorer ones, revenue from municipal violations accounts for large portions of the local government's operating budget.

"Some of our municipalities are seeking to raise revenue through the use of their municipal courts. This is not about public safety," says Harvey. "The courts in those municipalities are profit-seeking entities that systematically enforce municipal ordinance violations in a way that disproportionately impacts the indigent and communities of color."

And residents aren't happy about it. A Facebook page titled "Dissolve City of Pine Lawn Police Department" complains that the department is run "purely on traffic fines" and "has no reason to exist." The site has more than 10,000 "Likes," and perhaps for good reason. Pine Lawn has a population of only 3,275, yet last year it issued 5,333 new warrants, bringing its total outstanding warrants to 23,457.

Adding weight to Harvey's argument: Pine Lawn is 96 percent black, and its per capita income a measly $13,000. In 2013 the city collected more than $1.7 million in fines and court fees. That same year, the affluent west-county suburb of Chesterfield, with a population of 47,000 (about fifteen times bigger than Pine Lawn) and a per capita income of $50,000, collected just $1.2 million from municipal fines, according to statistics compiled by the state.

Several other north-county municipalities with high populations of African Americans also have similarly high warrant-to-population ratios as Pine Lawn. Country Club Hills, with a population of only 1,274, issued 2,000 municipal warrants last year and has more than 33,000 outstanding. Over 90 percent of Country Club Hills' residents are black and they have a per capita income of under $14,000. The same is true in nearby Wellston, a city that's 97 percent black and has a per capita income of less than $12,000. Last year its municipal court issued more warrants than the city has residents — 3,883 new warrants compared with a population of 2,300.

Monica Green, 33, knows the situation well. Between 2007 and 2013, the homeless mother of seven racked up about 40 traffic tickets, many of them in Wellston.

"They came in bunches," says Green. "They'd give me maybe four at a time. You get pulled over twice a year, that's already eight tickets."

Green, who has worked as many as three jobs at a time to make ends meet, had no way to pay the fines she received for violations such as driving without insurance and a busted taillight. When she couldn't pay those off, she started getting tickets for driving with a suspended license, too.

Buses couldn't get her to the baby sitter and work on time, so she kept driving.

"I didn't have a choice," she explains. "I might get pulled over, I might not. And if I did, I just hoped they don't tow my car and lock me up."

The fines and warrants kept coming. Eventually, Green's traffic tickets in Wellston, St. Louis and Breckenridge Hills totaled $1,200.

"I didn't have the money. It just wasn't there," she says.

A case worker at the homeless shelter where Green lives put her in touch with ArchCity Defenders. With a couple of letters to the court, attorney Stephanie Lummus was able to get Green's fines in Wellston reduced from around $900 to $100. Lummus was then able to get Green's $400 in fines to St. Louis reduced to community service. Without legal assistance, Green says, she just would have kept hoping that she didn't get locked up whenever she drove to work.

"Some of these cases do not take that much time for a lawyer to get involved in. Sometimes, it's just a phone call," Harvey says. "It's a very powerful phone call, but it's a phone call most people can't make."

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