"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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11 comments
egolterman
egolterman topcommenter

And in this downtown nearly $400 million is being spent to add a couple of miles of walk, and bike paths up to the Arch, the Cardinals owners are doubling their profits with Ballpark Village and this is after the Art Museum spent $170 million for an add-on which includes a huge parking-for-pay garage. Some young lawyers would do a lot more for the poor and veterans and the homeless by filing suit against the perps who do such deals.

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

.................and as for the BLACK / WHITE comments here,  i simply do not see the relevance when related to the economics because it has been long ago established that EDUCATION is the answer to ones future success in life (however that person defines the success that sustains them)

...............and any reference to founding fathers must include the fact that they were, in the end, all POLITICIANs, and to various degrees, with all the faux sincerity and self-agrandizing attitude that comes naturally with that pursuit, in it for themselves first - the only real heros are the ones that died in battle = period

frankd4
frankd4 topcommenter

.................... "holistic advocacy"  misses the point that there is a industrial judicial complex that depends on these issues to exist so that judges retirement plans can be funded and LEOs overtime readily available so LEOs may remain current on their boat payments and the local politicians can offer their favors to build prisons and courthouses to their construction contracting cronies for kick-backs and bribes and of course there is the entire legal professionals fees from billable hours that grease the wheels of justice here in america (and of course even wall street has a hand in taking prisons public to the investing crowd)

just as we need to incite trouble around the world to keep an industrial military complex humming we need to have hobos and vagrants and miscreants being pursued and prosecuted for being poor and disenfranchised

this country gave up any claim to charity when we killed of an entire nation of indigenous peoples who were already here for thousands of years,  wiping out all trace of their language and custom and tradition - if we could make a buck from them by charging admission in a museum maybe a few would have survived intact

but luckily the poor offer so many sources of revenue and benefits for the industrial judicial system america will keep them around for a while so long as their utility remains profitable

valentino.martinez
valentino.martinez

First, KUDOS to RFT’s Ray Downs for a splendid story of true Super-Heroes – the ArchCity Defenders who operate here in St. Louis on behalf of the downtrodden – the homeless, in particular, which includes veterans. BTW--LOVE the RFT cover – it would make Stan Lee proud.


I have to say, for legal professionals who could be doing so many other things – but choose to defend the disadvantaged vs. a justice system that ostracizes and penalizes those caught in the system – well, you’re the BEST.You show that indeed – and in deed -- there is hope & humanity where, prior to your arrival, there was confusion, frustration and desperation.


@JamesMadison or whatever your name is – solving the “real problem” starts at ground level where the pain is.Ray Down’s brilliant exposé here is the sort of investigative journalism that flushes out the real problem – and he’s discovered many.A flip remark like yours suggests that the ArchDefenders might be part of the problem because they’re not solving the problem you failed to define.


Hats off to the ArchDefenders because you are SuperHeroes and, in my view, true Knights in Shining Armor taking on the dragons in a system that feeds on the downtrodden.Godspeed you and your important work at ground-level where the problems have festered

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

.

          When poverty is outlawed, only outlaws will be poor.

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

It is good that someone will defend those being arrested for being poor, but the real problem is a city ordinance and a justice system that decides to fine those who do not have money. Offer them a day's work to pay off some of their fines. Clean the streets and sidewalks. Pull weeds. Find something for them to do other than constantly returning to court and telling the judge they cannot pay their fine - A fine levied against them mainly due to them being poor.


A superhero does not just keep doing the same thing over and over. They solve the real problem. That is my definition of a superhero.

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay, the the writer of our Constitution and freedoms. But less importantly. A middle name and a mother's maiden name for a bit of fun. Get a life. Stop living 240 years ago. The present is much more exciting. And playground bullying of making fun of names is so-so childish, well, you're making an ass of yourself for doing so. ;)

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@JamesMadison


I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And in as much as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

-- Abraham Lincoln

JamesMadison
JamesMadison topcommenter

@DonkeyHotay, he did write the framework for their freedoms. Many slave owners did not care for the system, but it was the way of life at the time. Before slavery could be abolished, the owners had to be free of their English king. The slaves were freed later, but in historical terms, not all that much longer - less than four scores after the US constitution was adopted. Early compromise made it possible for a nation to reject slavery at a later date.


I am happy you can reflect back over two hundred years, and place your 21st century condemnation upon men who were trying to free themselves first. The benefit of hindsight is never to be underestimated in a smug and righteous attitude.


Without slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, you would be kneeling to a king, not living in a republic. Great men are not perfect, but merely humans born into their times and customs.

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@JamesMadison ... he didn't write any "freedoms" for the Negro slaves he abused, bought, sold and fornicated with ... now did he?



 
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