That's especially true in municipal court, where defendants are not offered any legal aid. Couple the lack of assistance with the heavy fines people are forced to pay relative to their income, and it's no wonder so many of ArchCity Defenders' clients are leery of the system.

"Traffic courts are where most people interact with the justice system," says McAnnar. "And if this is how the justice system is treating people, that breeds complete mistrust for the system as a whole."

"And it's mistrust based on reality," adds Harvey. "You don't have to be a genius to see that when the judge asks you, 'Do you plead guilty or guilty with an explanation?' and regardless of the answer, the next instruction is to go see the woman at the cashier window."

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.

But there might be a solution, and it's a simple one.

"What can happen is just change the sequence," McAnnar suggests. "Just allow someone when they show up to tell the municipal judge, 'I'm poor. I make $3,000 a year. I can't do anything about that. That's where I am.' Let them make that argument at the beginning instead of making them plead guilty, assessing a fine, and then trying to unravel everything and go backward."

This, argues McAnnar, would prevent a litany of problems for poor people and save city courts significant amounts of money in court and jail costs. It would also eliminate a few barriers that stand in the way of those people who genuinely want to improve their lives.

"People are entitled to an indigency hearing," adds Harvey. "But many people don't ask for it because they don't know about it."


Earlier this year, Melvin Bain was back at the St. Louis municipal courthouse for his trespassing charge at Lumière Place Casino. Only this time he had Lummus by his side.

Lummus remembers standing next to Bain in the courtroom, where the smell of firewood hung in the air, a result of her client trying to keep warm the night before at his camp along the riverfront.

"We know a lot of the homeless folks at the Landing because we deal with a lot of their friends," says Lummus, who was told of Bain's plight from another man staying along the riverfront. To Lummus, the charges facing Bain were unjust.

"This guy did not deserve a B misdemeanor," she continues, adding that it's almost as if the city has made being homeless a crime. "If you're outside, you're trespassing. If you pee outside, that's public urination. If you beg for money, you get a panhandling charge."

"Yeah, they gave me tickets for panhandling," Bain sighs in disbelief.

Eventually Lummus got Bain's panhandling fines thrown out. Meanwhile, his trespassing citation will be dropped if he stays out of trouble through his next two court appearances.

For most attorneys, Lummus' work would have ended there. But under the holistic- defense model, her next step is trying to get Bain into permanent housing. That way he won't be so susceptible to another trespassing charge or any of the other municipal violations that impact the homeless.

Lummus, who is a Navy veteran like Bain, figured he'd be a good fit for St. Patrick Center's Project HERO (Housing, Employment & Recovery Opportunities), a program that helps homeless vets get back on their feet. Participants get their own apartment and pay one-third of their income toward rent.

The problem was that Bain didn't have the paperwork to prove his military service. Lummus went through the bureaucratic process of getting him verified through the Navy and, finally, admitted to Project HERO.

Bain also found a dishwashing job at a coffee shop. He's working now and paying his way. For the first time in years, it's unlikely he'll go through the day at risk of picking up a trespassing or panhandling citation.

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

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