Spurred by fallout in Ferguson, St. Louis cuts 222,000 warrants

Police block demonstrators from gaining access to Interstate Highway 70 on September 10, 2014 near Ferguson, Missouri.
Police block demonstrators from gaining access to Interstate Highway 70 on September 10, 2014 near Ferguson, Missouri.

St. Louis Municipal Court on Monday cancelled 222,000 arrest warrants for traffic offenses after the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson exposed systemic disparities in local law enforcement. 

The warrants were automatically eliminated and offenders will now have three months to get a new court date to face those previous charges, according to the city. The warrant amnesty includes all moving and non-moving traffic violations that do not include alcohol related charges, DWI/DUI or leaving the scene of an accident.

The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri uncovered a regional criminal justice system rife with inequality and vast racial disparities. The city, a suburb of St. Louis, has generated millions by ensnaring mostly poor and black residents in a sticky system that kept them burdened by exorbitant fines and fees associated with arrests associated with non-violent offenses mostly, including traffic infractions and simple marijuana possession.

Ferguson’s City Council recently moved to pass a slew of new ordinances aimed at dismantling that system by eliminating fees and establishing a warrant recall program.

But warrant amnesty is nothing new in St. Louis. As recently as earlier this year, the municipal court established a week in which people with warrants for non-violent ordinance violations to receive a new court date rather than be arrested. The cost was $35.

But the sheer number of warrants cancelled in this single sweep is remarkable.

"We issue traffic tickets for public safety, not as a revenue generator," Mayor Francis Slay said in a statement. "We will hold people accountable for traffic offenses.  But, a missed court date for a minor traffic violation should not stand in the way of a job, access to housing, or anything else. It's a balancing act. We want people to take care of their obligations under the law, but we understand that it can be burdensome and worrisome. We want to make it easier for people to get their affairs in order."

The city will send out postcards to people with outstanding warrants with instructions on how to establish a new court date. People will have until Dec. 31 to get a new court date. If not, warrants will be reissued.

Back in Ferguson, residents have consistently complained about years of unfair arrests and crippling court fees that have kept many in debt and prevented them from getting good jobs and housing. Last month during the city's first City Council meeting since Brown's shooting, the council rolled out sweeping new changes it hoped to make to it's court system.

As part of the city’s planned changes to the way it collects fees and fines is a proposal that would cap budgeted court fine revenue to 15% of the city’s revenue and that any excess revenue is earmarked for community projects. The funds are currently fed into Ferguson’s general purpose fund and were the second highest revenue stream for the city last year.

The changes in the way fees are collected were considered the first real tangible steps taken since Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson under questionable circumstances on Aug. 9. The shooting sparked outrage and greater scrutiny into what many described as a system of cops and courts that targeted minorities and profited off the poor.

Black motorists have been stopped twice as much as white motorists despite whites being more likely to be caught with contraband, according to a 2013 report by the state attorney general’s office. Last year the city collected more than $2 million in such costs.