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Lawsuit filed against Ferguson, other area municipalities

Local attorneys filed class action lawsuits against seven St. Louis County municipalities, including Ferguson, for charging what they say are “illegal fees” in municipal courts.

Attorneys from the ArchCity Defenders and Saint Louis University Legal Clinics, along with attorneys from the Campbell Law firm, are representing plaintiffs in the suits. The groups have already been working on efforts to reform municipal courts, including many in north St. Louis County, for months. Those efforts have been amplified by events in Ferguson.

The lawsuits, which claim that fees for warrants are not authorized by state law, target municipalities that collect a large portion of their budget from fines.

The suits seeks “a judgment that the fees violate state law,” and “reimbursement to defendants who were forced to pay the fees to avoid jail time or warrants,” according to a press release from SLU.

“The lawsuits come amid new scrutiny of municipal courts and the systemic issues of high fees and warrants that adversely affect low-income defendants,” the release said.

The suits include a claim under the state’s consumer fraud statute that alleges that cities attempted to deceive defendants into paying the fees, the release said.

Ferguson has already repealed ordinances charging “illegal fees,” the release said, but did not reimburse defendants “who were charged the illegal amounts,” including a $50 warrant recall fee and a $15 failure to appear fee.

In addition to Ferguson, lawsuits were filed in Fenton, Jennings, Beverly Hills, Pine Lawn, Wellston and Velda, the release said.

SLU Law Professor Brendan Roediger said in the press release that the goal is to “stop cities from filling their coffers with illegal fees and from continuing to conduct for-profit policing.”

“The cities have charged an untold amount of money illegally to thousands of people; money that could have gone to help families and help the economy,” Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said in the release. “We hear municipal officials and police repeatedly say citizens must be held accountable for their actions. Now it is time for these municipalities to be held accountable.”

The attorneys plan to file lawsuits in other cities in the county “in the near future,” the release said.

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