From Coyote, a Ferguson, Mo. recollection

by Walter Olson on August 27, 2014

As I and many other writers have noted lately, the town of Ferguson like several nearby suburbs in St. Louis County has a reputation for raising revenue through aggressive use of tickets for minor traffic and vehicle infractions, a practice that many suspect weighs more heavily on poorer and outsider groups. Blogger Coyote, who now lives in Arizona, has some reflections about police practice in that state and also adds this recollection from an earlier stint in Missouri:

I worked in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years, which ironically is located in one corner of Ferguson. One of the unwritten bennies of working there was the in house legal staff. It was important to make a friend there early. In Missouri they had some bizarre law where one could convert a moving violation to a non-moving violation. A fee still has to be paid, but you avoid points on your license that raises insurance costs (and life insurance costs, I found out recently). All of us were constantly hitting up the in-house legal staff to do this magic for us. I am pretty sure most of the residents of Ferguson do not have this same opportunity.

{ 11 comments }

1 Stl Law Student 08.27.14 at 11:16 am

This is so true! Everyone that can afford to do so pays an attorney to have their tickets converted into non-moving violations. The non-moving violations generally have higher fines but don’t raise insurance rates. This disadvantages the lower classes who either cannot afford it or who don’t know about this practice. The municipalities thrive on the money they make from tickets and they increase fees each time a person is unable to pay. If you don’t show up, they issue warrants for your arrest, further raising the money you owe. It’s a vicious cycle that takes advantage of the most vulnerable.

2 John Rohan 08.27.14 at 12:00 pm

I am sort of stunned why this is on Overlawyered, as if it’s something so unusual. Every city that I know of does this. It’s not really as shady as you make out, essentially it’s the same thing as plea-bargaining to a lessor offense in a criminal court. But yes, you need to pay an attorney fee for them to handle it for you. Speeding is normally lowered to “excessive vehicle noise” which doesn’t cost you points on your license or higher insurance rates.

3 No Name Guy 08.27.14 at 12:01 pm

I’m coming around to the opinion that all fines, court costs, etc ought to go to the central State (in Ferguson’s case, Missouri) into a dedicated fund for……State Parks, for example (to arbitrarily pick something that’s a pretty benign use for the money).

That would remove the incentive of local jurisdictions from using BS harassment / fines as a source of quasi taxes. Let the Government be funded by straight up taxes, period.

But, as long as incentives are there, you can bet that two bit Mayor’s and city / county councils will use Johnny Law to “make a profit” for the jurisdiction.

4 MattS 08.27.14 at 2:09 pm

@John Rohan,

“I am sort of stunned why this is on Overlawyered, as if it’s something so unusual. Every city that I know of does this. It’s not really as shady as you make out, essentially it’s the same thing as plea-bargaining to a lessor offense in a criminal court. But yes, you need to pay an attorney fee for them to handle it for you.”

I can’t speak to other states, but in Wisconsin where I live. You do not need a lawyer for this.

Wisconsin uses a points system and 12 points in 12 consecutive months means an automatic license suspention.

All you have to do is show up in the municipal or county traffic court. Then excluding DUIs, they will ask for a show of hands for who intends to contest the ticket. Everyone who raises their hand will be offered a plea deal to a lesser charge worth fewer points (you still have to pay the original fine). The only attorney involved is the city/county attorney.

5 Walter Olson 08.27.14 at 2:25 pm

I think customs and practices vary a great deal from place to place across the country both as to the intensity with which police write tickets, and to the extent to which getting tickets reduced or dropped becomes a regular and expected thing for those who can afford to. “Everyone does it, it’s just normal” doesn’t seem to capture these complexities.

6 ras 08.27.14 at 3:12 pm

“Everyone does it, it’s just normal” can also indicate a more widespread problem.

7 VMS 08.27.14 at 4:33 pm

In my opinion, plea bargaining traffic tickets to anything but a lesser included offense is unethical. For example, plea bargaining speeding 15 MPH over the limit to speeding 1 MPH over the limit should be okay, because the guilty plea would still be for speeding, but the degree of speeding is still up in the air at the plea bargain stage.

On the other hand, plea bargaining speeding to an illegal lane change, or worse, to an equipment violation, is unethical, because the plea is a fiction that bears no resemblance to the initial charge. Each of these unrelated offenses has completely different elements of proof. In my opinion the prosecuting attorneys that suggest these plea deals (and the judges that approve them) should be brought up on ethical charges).

I also believe that a governmental budget that counts on revenue from people breaking the law is also unethical, but that is an entirely different subject.

8 CarLitGuy 08.27.14 at 4:41 pm

From one point of view, it appears near everything is illegal – Unless one pays the local shire reeve (tax man ) to look the other way in advance. This is referred to as a “license”.

After the fact, one often finds oneself with two options. First, pay the Crown the approved penalty – or – pay the shire reeve directly some funds he may use to his own purpose, and in exchange, he reports some lesser crime to the Crown.

The whole sordid thing smacks of the law being held in disrepute by all participants. Except, of course, for the Crown – who responds by making more and more things crimes against the Crown.

9 Doug 08.27.14 at 5:54 pm

In Wisconsin, little burgs will catch you speeding and write out a ticket based on local ordinance violation, not state traffic law. That way, the money stays with them. You can still bargain it “up” to a non moving violation. So, you actually pay more money to have the ticket reduced in points. So, a speeding in a school zone, could be $80 and 4 points, but mercifully, its reduced to no points and $125. See? nifty.

10 Paxson 08.27.14 at 5:58 pm

I am 41 years old and have lived in Mo. most of my life. It’s that way everywhere I’ve lived in this state. Usually the fine plus a little extra, converted to faulty equipment and everyone moves on.

11 Speed 08.28.14 at 11:00 am

It’s interesting that left-leaning news sources are discovering and reporting the same stories that libertarian organizations (Cato for instance) have been covering for years. This morning Democracy Now! had a piece on this.

So, Nicole has a driving while suspended because she couldn’t pay to get her tickets amended. So her license got suspended as a result. She has no proof of insurance, because she couldn’t [pay] to get her tickets amendments, so her insurance costs went up, and it was prohibitively expensive. She’s charged with—typically charged with what our clients are charged with, the big three poverty crimes—and they’re not really crimes—but it’s driving while suspended, no proof of insurance, and failure to register vehicle. These are not people who are refusing to comply with the law; they’re people who cannot comply with the law.
[ ... ]
And that’s not what the system should be about. We have to divorce the administration of justice from the generation of revenue. And that’s a systemic problem in our region …

http://www.democracynow.org/2014/8/27/is_ferguson_feeding_on_the_poor

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