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Ferguson municipal judge takes heat in Justice Department report

Ferguson Municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer came in for his share of the burn from a report Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called “searing.”

The U.S. Department of Justice cleared white former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown at the same time it issued the report calling for sweeping changes in city law enforcement practices.

The report takes Brockmeyer, a St. Charles attorney, to task for everything from getting his own traffic ticket fixed to reportedly jailing a man for 10 days for refusing to answer questions. It also cited him as part of the focus on revenue rather than public safety.

“The emphasis on revenue generation through policing has fostered unconstitutional practices — or practices that contribute to constitutional violations — at nearly every level of Ferguson’s law enforcement system,” Holder said at a Wednesday press conference in Washington, D.C.

“The emphasis on revenue generation through policing has fostered unconstitutional practices — or practices that contribute to constitutional violations — at nearly every level of Ferguson’s law enforcement system.” – U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

The Justice Department’s civil rights division compiled the report after interviewing city officials including the mayor and Brockmeyer and people charged with municipal offenses, reviewing thousands of emails and observing four sessions of court.

Brockmeyer didn’t return a Wednesday phone call by press time.

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said in a press conference Wednesday evening that the city and the court already have made changes, including adding a docket for those having trouble paying fines; eliminating “failure to appear” charges; and capping income brought in by the court to 15 percent of the city’s revenue, or half the percentage state law allows. Anything over that goes to “community projects.”

The city also has hired two new assistant court clerks — both African-American women, Knowles said, reading from a prepared statement. He did not take questions.

“Today’s report allows the city of Ferguson to identify the problems not only in our police department, but in the whole St. Louis region. We must do better — not only as a city, but as a state and a country,” Knowles said.

Fixing tickets

Brockmeyer, an attorney with the Law Offices of Ronald J. Brockmeyer, has a criminal and DWI defense and traffic practice, according to the firm’s website. He also is prosecutor for the cities of Florissant, Vinita Park and Dellwood.

Ronald Brockmeyer

Ronald Brockmeyer

In October 2013, Brockmeyer sent an email to Ferguson’s prosecuting attorney asking that a red light camera ticket the judge got in Hazelwood be dismissed, the report said. The prosecuting attorney, who also was prosecuting attorney in Hazelwood, emailed back that the ticket had been dismissed.

The prosecuting attorney is not named, but Stephanie Karr has been serving in that role in Hazelwood since 2004, according to her biography on the website of her firm, Curtis, Heinz, Garrett & O’Keefe. She also has been prosecuting attorney in Ferguson.

Karr did not immediately return a phone call.

Brockmeyer also has another municipal judge role — for the suburb of Breckenridge Hills. It was in that capacity he helped out a Ferguson Police Department patrol supervisor with a speeding ticket, according to the Justice Department report.

In August 2014, the court clerk emailed Brockmeyer a copy of a Breckenridge failure-to-appear notice for the speeding ticket and asked the judge to take care of it.

“The Judge replied: ‘Sure,’” the report said.

While the supervisor avoided a failure-to-appear problem in Breckenridge, fines for that offense could mount up rapidly for Ferguson municipal court defendants. They accounted for $442,901 in revenue for the court in 2013, according to the Justice Department report.

The report chronicles the “crippling debts” failure-to-appear fines for missed court appearances and payments could create from minor offenses. It also says a list drafted by Brockmeyer in 2011 “approvingly highlights” the creation of fees, including a “failure to appear fine” increased each time the defendant fails to appear in court or pay a fine.

In a report that included the list, Ferguson’s finance director lauded Brockmeyer for his success “in significantly increasing court collections over the years” since the judge’s 2003 appointment.

That success stood Brockmeyer in good stead in 2012, when a Ferguson City Council member wrote to other city officials opposing Brockmeyer’s reappointment, saying that “[the Judge] does not listen to the testimony, does not review the reports or the criminal history of defendants, and doesn’t let all the pertinent witnesses testify before rendering a verdict,” according to the report.

“[The Judge] does not listen to the testimony, does not review the reports or the criminal history of defendants, and doesn’t let all the pertinent witnesses testify before rendering a verdict.”

Admittedly, the councilmember wrote, switching judges could lead to a loss of revenue, but it was “more important that cases are being handled properly and fairly.”

The city manager acknowledged mixed reviews of Brockmeyer’s work but urged the reappointment, saying the city couldn’t afford to lose out on any fines and forfeitures, according to the report. Brockmeyer kept his job.

The Ferguson City Council repealed the failure to appear ordinance, which called for more than $100 in a fine and court costs for the offense, in September 2014.

Jail time

Ferguson’s municipal court, which operates as part of the police department, “primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests,” the report says.

Some defendants worry that if they can’t immediately pay their fines, they will be arrested and sent to jail if they appear in court, the report says. Brockmeyer told Justice Department investigators he has never sentenced anyone to jail time because the person couldn’t pay a fine, but he confirmed, “It is not uncommon for him to add charges and assess additional fines when a defendant challenges the citation that brought the defendant into court,” the report says.

Brockmeyer also reportedly jailed a man for 10 days for contempt of court after the man refused to answer questions. A Ferguson police officer emailed the city manager about the jailing in December 2013.

The email doesn’t provide enough information to determine whether the order to jail the man was appropriate, the report says.

“Nonetheless, the email suggests that the court jailed a defendant for refusing to answer questions, which raises significant Fifth Amendment concerns,” the report says. “There is also no indication as to whether the defendant was represented [by an attorney] or, if not, was allowed or afforded representation to defend against the contempt charge and 10-day sentence.”

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One comment

  1. This judge is the reason for the issue. He respects nobody and threaten me to increase the fine to $1000 if I continued to ask any more questions. He should be jailed and loose his license.

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