St. Louis suburb settles ‘debtors’ prison’ lawsuit

A Missouri town will pay $3.25 million to settle a so-called debtors’ prison lawsuit over allegations that thousands of people were unconstitutionally jailed and forced to pay fines and fees that provided millions of dollars for the town’s coffers.

The town of Maplewood agreed last week to the settlement of the federal class-action lawsuit. Maplewood was among several St. Louis County towns whose policing and court practices fell under scrutiny after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson in 2014.

The Maplewood lawsuit, filed in 2016, alleges unlawful policing and economic injustice. The settlement money will be distributed among more than 7,000 people who were jailed and more than 20,000 who paid fines and fees from Nov. 1, 2011, through Nov. 18, 2021.

The suit accuses Maplewood of routinely violating constitutional rights through a “predatory scheme” of unconstitutional jailing, often for minor traffic offenses, to extract fines and fees.

“This resulted in poor people, and mostly Black people, who were jailed for days at a time until Maplewood had extorted as much money as possible from them,” Nathaniel Carroll of the civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders said in a statement.

One plaintiff, Frank Williams, a 56-year-old Black man, was ticketed and jailed for more than two weeks for failing to provide insurance identification. The lawsuit says Williams had been jailed more than 10 times in various St. Louis County municipalities, all for minor municipal code violations.

Maplewood police issued nearly 85,000 tickets from 2011 through 2021, generating $6.4 million in revenue, the law firm said. But since the lawsuit was filed, municipal court revenue has dropped by nearly two-thirds and the number of tickets issued has declined 70%, the firm said.

Messages left Tuesday with Maplewood’s mayor and city manager were not immediately returned.

The settlement is the latest in several similar lawsuits in the St. Louis area in the years since Brown’s death. The Black teenager was fatally shot by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. Wilson was not charged, but the shooting led to months of protests and prompted a Department of Justice investigation.

The federal agency in 2015 accused Ferguson of racially biased policing and using excessive fines and court fees. A year later, Ferguson and the Justice Department reached an agreement that required sweeping reforms.

The investigation in Ferguson raised concerns about policing and municipal court practices in other St. Louis County towns, spurring several class-action lawsuits. ArchCity Defenders said that in previous settlements, Jennings paid $4.75 million, Normandy paid $1.3 million, and Edmundson paid $370,000. Lawsuits are still pending against Ferguson and two nearby towns – St. Ann and Florissant.

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