Quinton Thomas is afraid to drive to work, to visit friends, or to the barber for a haircut. He’s afraid he’ll be pulled over and put in jail — not for some crime he’s committed but because he can’t afford to pay fines from traffic tickets issued long ago. He’s afraid he’ll be jailed because he’s driving while black in St. Louis County, Missouri.
“Traffic stops have cost me a lot of money, have cost my family money, and also have cost me time and jobs,” said Thomas, a 28-year-old construction worker.
On Tuesday night, lawyers for Thomas and 12 other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit charging 13 St. Louis County towns with “extorting money” via traffic fines from poor black residents in “a deliberate and coordinated scheme…to fill [their] coffers.” The suit was filed two years to the day after a police officer shot 18-year-old Michael Brown to death in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, and the day before the Justice Department released a scathing report about racial profiling by police In Baltimore.
According to lawyers at local civil rights firm ArchCity Defenders and the D.C.-based firm Arnold and Porter, the 13 towns make so many traffic stops that in 2015 there was an average of one arrest warrant for every resident. The suit alleges the towns have conspired as a group to arrest drivers who are too poor to pay their traffic fines, then added more fines and jail sentences when the drivers can’t pay -- in effect, running a “debtors’ prison scheme that has no place in American society.”
“We’ve had people that have spent weeks in jails for traffic violations and not only does that run afoul of the expectations we would have for that kind of violation but it runs afoul of the Constitution,” said Blake Strode, a lawyer for ArchCity. “No one’s arguing that there shouldn’t be any punishment for these things, but what we can’t do is hold people in jail because they’re too poor to pay a debt.”
In May, Thomas was driving his friend to the barbershop when a police officer from Beverly Hills, Missouri, a city of just 57 acres and fewer than 600 people just south of Ferguson, pulled him over for a busted bumper. When the officer ran the plates on Thomas’s 2005 Chevy, he found outstanding warrants for unpaid traffic fines in two of the 13 towns. That, according to Thomas and his lawyers, was enough to land him in jail for a day and a half. As a result of missing work, according to the lawyers, he lost his construction job.
Thomas says it was the third time in three years he had been hauled off to jail for warrants stemming from unpaid traffic violations. He estimates he’s spent at least a week behind bars.
Thomas describes the experience of driving as “just fear. You know, you have your siblings in the car with you, coming from a family event, and you know in the back of your mind that if I was to get pulled over, I could get taken to jail.”
In 2015, the Department of Justice issued a sharply critical report on Ferguson’s criminal justice system, calling its policing and court racially biased and revenue driven. But while the city of Ferguson remains under a consent decree with the Justice department to overhaul its police department and its municipal court, including eliminating unnecessary fees and “ensuring that no person will be jailed for being poor,” the jumble of other municipalities in St. Louis County have, for the most part, been allowed to operate freely. Said Strode, “Poor people in St. Louis County are being treated very, very differently than people who have money.”
St. Louis County is made up of 90 municipalities, with more than 80 municipal courts. Towns with populations as small as 900 have their own police forces. A 10-mile drive can wind through 10 cities. According to the lawsuit, court fines and fees are the largest single source of revenue for six of the 13 towns being sued. In a 2014 memo obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the mayor of Edmundson, one of the defendants, reminded sergeants and patrolmen “that the tickets that you write do add to the revenue on which the P.D. budget is established and will directly affect pay adjustments at budget time.”
“Municipal court revenues make up a large fraction of the revenues for these towns,” said Strode, “so there’s an incentive in the very structure of how this system is set up to pull over as many as people as possible to ticket as many people as possible and to use whatever tools that are at their disposal to collect money.”
Most of the municipalities named in the suit did not immediately respond to a request for comment by NBC News. The city attorney for Calverton Park declined to comment.
Edmundson City Administrator Ronda Phelps defended her city’s practices, saying its take from traffic tickets is “way less” than state law allows.
“Every year we have been below the amount we could bring in, because if it’s over, it has to be reimbursed to the state,” Phelps said.
Pagedale’s Acting Police Chief Cory Stayton said the department has been issuing fewer citations in recent years and its municipal court has made efforts to help those who can’t pay.
“In fact we have a fair judge that runs our court who does allow community service and does not render excessive fines,” Stayton said.
“Beverly Hills Mayor Brian Jackson called the charge of running a debtors' prison "ridiculous."
“Stop breaking the law," said Jackson. "How about we start there?”
Regardless of income, Jackson said, people must obey the law. He said the suit jeopardizes public safety in the community of fewer than 600 residents, 93 percent of whom are black.
In a 2014 interview with NBC News, St. Ann Police Chief Aaron Jimenez said traffic enforcement has reduced accidents significantly in recent years. “I’ve said since the beginning if you don’t break the law, then you don’t have anything to worry about,” he said. "People don’t get the message unless it hurts the pocketbook, and we all know that.”
But worries about being stopped for a busted taillight or some other minor infraction mean that local drivers sometimes don’t drive the shortest distance between two points.
“A lot of times I try to navigate where I’m going. I might have to take a longer way so I don’t go through this or that [area],” said Thomas. He said it’s something he and family and friends think about every time they get behind the wheel.
In 2012, Thomas was stopped in the town of Normandy for invalid license plates and failure to register his vehicle. When he couldn’t pay the minimum of $100 toward a $600 fine, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest. So when he was stopped in 2013 in Edmundson for failure to make a complete stop at a stop sign — a charge he disputes—he ended up in jail for three days.
By the time Thomas was pulled over in Beverly Hills for the busted bumper, he had multiple warrants for his arrest, all stemming from minor, driving-related offenses.
Each time Thomas was jailed, he was sent to the St. Ann jail, which Strode describes as a “jailing hub” for St. Ann and the other towns in the lawsuit. Thomas said he has lost two jobs because of stints behind bars. And when he was arrested for the broken bumper, his vehicle was impounded. The car that would drive him to a job that would allow him to pay off the fine was gone too.
“The punishment far outweighs the crime,” said Strode. “It’s out of whack.” He says many of many of his clients have suffered the same consequences after being locked up: lost jobs, cars, even homes. “We’re talking about minor things like failing to signal, speeding, failure to register a vehicle and some of these folks have spent weeks in jail.”
The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, asks for a policy change, for the accused to have a hearing before being jailed for a traffic ticket, and a statement from the court saying that these practices are unconstitutional and need to stop. It also requests monetary compensation both for the named plaintiffs and the classes they represent,
Thomas, meanwhile, has new wheels and a new job in construction. He says the lawsuit has given him the confidence to become a voice for his community: “I always wanted to speak out but never knew how to before.”
-- Thomas Himes contributed reporting to this article.
Brenda Breslauer is a producer with the NBC News Investigative Unit.