The new judge in Ferguson, Mo., on Monday ordered “sweeping changes” to the city’s much-criticized court system, including the withdrawal of all arrest warrants issued prior to 2015 and the reinstatement of driver’s licenses that were suspended solely for failing to appear in court or pay a fine.
The announcement was made by Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin, who was appointed in June 2015, in which he said the changes are aimed at restoring confidence in the court and easing the burden on defendants who lack financial resources.
“These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court, and giving many residents a fresh start,” McCullin said in a statement. “Many individuals whose license has been suspended will be able to obtain them and take advantage of the benefits of being able to drive. Moreover, defendants will not be disadvantaged in being afforded pre-trial release because of the inability to make bond.”
McCullin, who is Black, said all active warrants more than five years old will be withdrawn and defendants will be given new court dates along with additional options to resolve their cases, including payment plans and community service and/or commuting fines for indigent persons. Defendants with arrest warrants for minor traffic violations will no longer face incarceration and instead will be released on their own recognizance and given another court date.
If a defendant continually fails to appear on their scheduled court date, he added, an arrest warrant may be issued or the court may seek a setoff of a defendant’s tax return.
The move by McCullin comes amid heavy criticism of the Ferguson justice system by both the community and the U.S. Department of Justice claiming residents — overwhelmingly Black residents — were subjected to frequent ticketing, heavy fines and jail time, often for minor transgressions like traffic violations and jaywalking.
The Justice Department began its own civil rights investigation soon after the shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson last August and strongly criticized city leaders in its conclusions released in March, saying the police department and court worked together to exploit residents in order to raise revenue.
The six-month investigation concluded that police officers in Ferguson routinely violated the constitutional rights of the city’s residents by discriminating against African Americans and applying racial stereotypes in a “pattern or practice of unlawful conduct.”
The investigation found that in 88 percent of cases in which the police reported using force, it was against African Americans. Additionally, Black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, but 26 percent less likely to be found in possession of contraband.
The report further concluded that municipal court practices caused significant harm to many people with cases pending as minor municipal code violations turned into multiple arrests, jail time and payments that exceeded the cost of the original ticket many times over.
McCullin replaced Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, who resigned after being criticized in the Justice Department report.
The changes ordered by McCullin go above and beyond a Missouri state bill passed this year and expected to take effect on Friday, which limits the percentage of revenue that cities can bring in from traffic fines and fees.
“The Ferguson City Council was informed of the proposed actions by Judge McCullin and applauds the recall of the arrest warrants and the rescission of the driver’s license suspensions in compliance with Senate Bill 5 and as a way to restore confidence in the Municipal Court,” said City of Ferguson Mayor James Knowles in a statement.