FERGUSON, MO — Ferguson has been touting changes made to its police department and court system after the federal government blasted the city for hitting low-income and minority residents with big fines and arrest warrants over traffic tickets and other minor violations.
During a recent hearing, CNNMoney polled people as they entered and exited the court building to see whether they felt the embattled city has really changed its ways.
After hearing all the horror stories about Ferguson’s judicial system, Carroll entered the court last month “not knowing what to expect.” But he was pleasantly surprised. Carroll, a server at P.F. Chang’s, had six outstanding tickets for everything from failing to turn his headlights on to possession of marijuana.
In court though, the judge dismissed a few of the tickets — leaving him with fines of $504, which Ferguson confirmed to CNNMoney. He said this is a lot less than he would have owed last year, when Ferguson was charging higher fines.
Hale, who works in construction and has three kids, was arrested in May over two traffic tickets he got more than four years ago. He thought the tickets had been thrown out in the wake of all the controversy in Ferguson, especially since he knew that another nearby town had completely wiped out old tickets. So he was shocked when he was pulled over and immediately arrested. Hale says he spent more than 8 hours in jail and had to pay $200 to get out.
Ferguson said it applied that bond toward his total fines of $304 — leaving him with a balance of $104.
At his most recent court date in July, Hale was hoping to finally get the charges dismissed, but instead was put on a $50 a month payment plan. He says he doesn’t think anything has changed in Ferguson, and that it’s still far too easy to get tickets and end up in jail over minor offenses.
Cherry’s recent brush with the law all stemmed from what he says was a bizarre misunderstanding. In March, he had gone to a local motor vehicle bureau to register his pickup truck, when an employee unexpectedly called the police claiming Cherry’s insurance was fraudulent. He says he tried to convince the officers that his coverage was real but they still gave him a ticket.
At court last month, Cherry said he thought the judge dismissed the ticket after Cherry provided proof his insurance was valid. But he still has to pay $26.50 in court costs, and Ferguson says the charges actually weren’t completely dismissed. Instead, the fine was dropped to $1.50 — leaving him with a balance of $28.
Harris spent more than a decade fearing she’d be arrested. An old charge for bouncing a check had turned into an arrest warrant, and it had been haunting her ever since. So she finally turned herself in. But she says the charges were so old that there was no longer any record of a warrant in the system, so officials gave her a new court date and told her to go home. Ferguson confirmed that Harris hadn’t appeared in court for 14 years, after pleading guilty to the charge in 2001.
At court in July, she told the judge she was recovering from a stroke and living on disability payments so she would have a hard time paying the $372 in fines. She says the judge gave her a new court date and told her that if she brought proof of her income and medication expenses, the ticket would likely be dismissed.
Williams got a ticket this year for not having insurance after being pulled over, a citation that Ferguson confirmed to CNNMoney.
Standing in the parking lot of Ferguson’s court last month holding her young daughter, she said the court’s atmosphere had definitely changed. But she still doesn’t trust the system. She said employees have been acting so nice and over-the-top that she thinks it’s condescending. “Just because they’re saying hi and looking at my daughter all googly-eyed doesn’t make up for the way they treated us,” she said.
By Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken