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Judge Revamps Court in Ferguson, Missouri

  • VOA News

FILE - Protesters gather along West Florissant Avenue during demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 11, 2015.

FILE - Protesters gather along West Florissant Avenue during demonstration in Ferguson, Missouri, Aug. 11, 2015.

A municipal judge assigned to oversee judicial reforms in racially tense Ferguson, Missouri, has ordered that all arrest warrants issued in the city before December 31, 2014 be withdrawn.

Under Monday's order, issued by Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin, defendants will be assigned new court dates, along with options for disposing of their cases that include payment plans or community service. Fines may be commuted for those unable to pay.

The ruling also orders the reinstatement of driver's permits to all defendants who lost their licenses for failing to pay a fine or failure to appear in court.

The directive is a key part of the city's response to a scathing U.S. Justice Department critique earlier this year that followed the fatal 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb.

U.S. investigators found that Ferguson police and municipal court officials effectively worked in tandem to exploit blacks, who account for about two-thirds of Ferguson's 21,000 residents. It said authorities did so with the primary aim of raising revenue.

The report focused sharply on court procedures that penalized people with cases pending for alleged municipal code violations. It said failure to pay fines frequently turned into multiple arrests, jail time and new financial penalties that far exceeded the original fines.

Plight of indigent woman

The report cited several cases, including that of a black woman who parked her car illegally in 2007 and later received two citations and a $151 fine. The woman, who had experienced periods of homelessness and financial distress, was charged seven times for missing court dates or fine payments on parking tickets.

By the end of 2014, the woman — now able to make regular payments — had paid $550 on her original $151 fine, and still owed $541.

Separately, investigators found that African Americans accounted for 93 percent of all arrests from 2012 to 2014.

Origins of probe

The U.S. investigation was launched after the August 9, 2014 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer during a street confrontation. The officer, Darren Wilson, was not charged in the shooting, a decision that triggered protests in numerous American cities and widespread accusations of mistreatment of blacks by police.

On Monday, the municipal judge said the changes he ordered exceed those called for by a recent Missouri Supreme Court rule aimed at providing relief to defendants ensnared in the city's court system.

Some information is from Reuters and AP.

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