Driving While Black in Ferguson

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“You go to all of these damn courts, and there’s no white people,” one defendant, slated to appear before a municipal court in St. Louis County, recently said.

Another complained that North St. Louis County municipalities such as Ferguson, which attracted national attention after a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American high school graduate, on Saturday, prompting days of protests, profile minorities when it comes to traffic tickets.

“In Dellwood, Ferguson, basically, in North County, if you’re black, they’re going to stop you,” the resident said according to a new report on policing in the area.

For residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and surrounding municipalities in St. Louis County, it’s not surprising that racial tensions have boiled over. In a town of 21,000, two-thirds of the residents are African-American, and many reports have highlighted a fraught relationship between Ferguson's residents and its mostly white police force. Only three people in the 53-member police department are black, according to the Washington Post, and the Ferguson Police Department disproportionately stops and arrests black drivers.

“Everybody in this city has been a victim of DWB, [driving while black]," Anthony Ross, 26, explained to the Post. 

A paper published Thursday by the ArchCity Defenders, a legal aid organization representing indigent defendants in the St. Louis metropolitan area, offers another insight into why residents’ resentment of law enforcement officials run so deep: They don’t just feel that they are getting stopped because of the color of their skin. Rather, they feel like they are getting stopped because of the color of their skin so that the city of Ferguson can profit off of them—for traffic tickets.

ArchCity Defenders, which has tracked ticketing of St. Louis area residents for five years and focused primarily on vehicle violations, started a court-watching program because so many of its clients complained of traffic prosecution wreaking havoc on their lives. Defendants routinely alleged that a racially-motivated traffic stop led to their being jailed due to inability to pay traffic fines, which in turn prompted people to “los[e] jobs and housing as a result of the incarceration.” In other words, defendants alleged that racial profiling, for traffic tickets, propelled them deeper and deeper into the cycle of poverty. The ArchCity report does not allege racial profiling; however, it is clear that many of the people stopped for traffic violations feel that they were targeted for their race.

Of the 60 courts St. Louis County municipal courts observed by ArchCity, 30 were accused of engaging in illegal or harmful practices. “Three courts, Bel-Ridge, Florissant, and Ferguson, were chronic offenders and serve as prime examples of how these practices violate fundamental rights of the poor, undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and create inefficiencies,” according to the report.

The paper points out that in Ferguson, 86 percent of vehicle stops “involved a black motorist, although blacks make up just 67 percent of the population.” In addition, blacks stopped in Ferguson “are almost twice as likely as whites to be searched (12.1 percent versus 6.9 percent) and twice as likely to be arrested (10.4 percent versus 5.2 percent)”. Searches of blacks only results in discovery of contraband 21.7 percent of the time, whereas contraband is recovered from their less frequently stopped white counterparts 34.0 percent of the time.

Municipalities’ seeming willigness to profit off of minorities has undoubtedly fueled the flames ignited by Brown’s shooting. One resident quoted in the study said, “It’s ridiculous how these small municipalities make their lifeline off the blood of the people who drive through the area.”

Twenty-two percent of Ferguson residents live below the poverty line, and 21.7 percent receive food stamps. The unemployment rate in the town is 14.3 percent, or more than double that of St. Louis County and Missouri as a whole. 

“Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of 2,635,400,” according to the ArchCity Defenders report. And in 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court issued 24,532 arrest warrants and 12,018 cases, “or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.”

Exacerbating the problem, the report says, are "a number of operational procedures that make it even more difficult for defendants to navigate the courts." A Ferguson court employee reported, for example, that “the bench routinely starts hearing cases 30 minutes before the appointed time and then locks the doors to the building as early as five minutes after the official hour, a practice that could easily lead a defendant arriving even slightly late to receive an additional charge for failure to appear.”

Thomas Harvey, co-founder and executive director of ArchCity Defenders and one of the paper’s authors, says that residents’ perception that the system is unfairly stacked against them gives important context for the depth of the present outrage.

“There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County that range from 12 people to 50,000 people. Eighty-six of them have their own courts. They have their own police forces,” he explains. “What ends up being the product of all that is just a low-level sense of harassment on a daily basis. The clients that we represent feel that. It’s palpable for them.”

“They resent it because it’s not about public safety,” he adds. “These aren’t violent criminals. These are poor people.”

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