Fant et al v. Ferguson, Missouri, City of
COMPLAINT against defendant All Defendants with receipt number 0865-4717478, in the amount of $400 Jury Demand,, filed by Anthony Kimble, Tonya DeBerry, Allison Nelson, Donyale Thomas, Daniel Jenkins, Roelif Carter, Shameika Morris, Keilee Fant, Herbert Nelson, Jr, Ronnie Tucker, Alfred Morris. (Attachments: # 1 Civil Cover Sheet, # 2 Original Filing Form, # 3 Summons, # 4 Notice of Process Server)(Karakatsanis, Alexander)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF MISSOURI
KEILEE FANT, ROELIF CARTER,
ALLISON NELSON, HERBERT
NELSON JR., ALFRED MORRIS,
ANTHONY KIMBLE, DONYALE
THOMAS, SHAMEIKA MORRIS,
DANIEL JENKINS, RONNIE TUCKER, )
TONYA DEBERRY, et al.,
THE CITY OF FERGUSON
Case No. ________________
(Jury Trial Demanded)
CLASS ACTION COMPLAINT
The Plaintiffs in this case are each impoverished people who were jailed by the City
of Ferguson because they were unable to pay a debt owed to the City from traffic tickets or other
minor offenses. In each case, the City imprisoned a human being solely because the person could
not afford to make a monetary payment. Although the Plaintiffs pleaded that they were unable to
pay due to their poverty, each was held in jail indefinitely and none was afforded a lawyer or the
inquiry into their ability to pay that the United States Constitution requires. Instead, they were
threatened, abused, and left to languish in confinement at the mercy of local officials until their
frightened family members could produce enough cash to buy their freedom or until City jail
officials decided, days or weeks later, to let them out for free.
Once locked in the Ferguson jail, impoverished people owing debts to the City
endure grotesque treatment. They are kept in overcrowded cells; they are denied toothbrushes,
toothpaste, and soap; they are subjected to the constant stench of excrement and refuse in their
congested cells; they are surrounded by walls smeared with mucus and blood; they are kept in the
same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean underwear; they step on top
of other inmates, whose bodies cover nearly the entire uncleaned cell floor, in order to access a
single shared toilet that the City does not clean; they develop untreated illnesses and infections in
open wounds that spread to other inmates; they endure days and weeks without being allowed to
use the moldy shower; their filthy bodies huddle in cold temperatures with a single thin blanket
even as they beg guards for warm blankets; they are not given adequate hygiene products for
menstruation; they are routinely denied vital medical care and prescription medication, even when
their families beg to be allowed to bring medication to the jail; they are provided food so
insufficient and lacking in nutrition that inmates lose significant amounts of weight; they suffer
from dehydration out of fear of drinking foul smelling water that comes from an apparatus on top
of the toilet; and they must listen to the screams of other inmates languishing from unattended
medical issues as they sit in their cells without access to books, legal materials, television, or
natural light. Perhaps worst of all, they do not know when they will be allowed to leave.
These physical abuses and deprivations are accompanied by other pervasive
humiliations. Jail guards routinely taunt impoverished people when they are unable to pay for
their release, telling them that they will be released whenever jail staff “feels” like letting them go.
As described in detail below, jail guards routinely and pervasively laugh at the inmates and
humiliate them with discriminatory and degrading epithets.
For example, when filthy and
shivering women were forced to share blankets to stay warm, officers shouted at the women that
they were “stanky ass dykes” and “dirty whores.”
City officials and employees—through their conduct, decisions, training and lack
of training, rules, policies, and practices—have built a municipal scheme designed to brutalize, to
punish, and to profit. The architecture of this illegal scheme has been in place for many years.1
In 2014, the City of Ferguson issued an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants
per household and almost 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid
debt for tickets.2 The City of Ferguson issues more arrest warrants per capita than any other city
in Missouri larger than 10,000 residents. If the rest of the Saint Louis metropolitan area generated
revenue from its courts at the rate done by relatively low-income Ferguson, it would have made
nearly $1.3 billion in the past five years.
The City’s modern debtors’ prison scheme has been increasingly profitable to the
City of Ferguson, earning it millions of dollars over the past several years. It has also devastated
the City’s poor, trapping them for years in a cycle of increased fees, debts, extortion, and cruel
jailings. The families of indigent people borrow money to buy their loved ones out of jail at rates
set arbitrarily by jail officials, only for them later to owe more money to the City of Ferguson from
increased fees and surcharges. Thousands of people like the Plaintiffs take money from their
disability checks or sacrifice money that is desperately needed by their families for food, diapers,
clothing, rent, and utilities to pay ever increasing court fines, fees, costs, and surcharges. They are
See, e.g., T.E. Lauer, Prolegomenon to Municipal Court Reform in Missouri, 31 Mo. L. Rev. 69, 93 (1966) (“Our
municipal jails are, in almost every case, nothing but calabooses suited at best for temporary detention. The worst of
them are comparable with medieval dungeons of the average class; they are the shame of our cities.”); id. at 88 (“[I]t
seems that many citizens of the state are being confined needlessly in our city jails…..”); id. at 85 (“[I]t is disgraceful
that we do not appoint counsel in our municipal courts to represent indigent persons accused of ordinance violations.”);
id. at 90 (“It is clear that many municipalities have at times conceived of their municipal courts in terms of their
In 2013, the City again issued more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household and 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult.
told by City officials that, if they do not pay, they will be thrown in jail. The cycle repeats itself,
month after month, for years.
The treatment of Keilee Fant, Roelif Carter, Allison Nelson, Herbert Nelson, Jr.,
Alfred Morris, Anthony Kimble, Donyale Thomas, Shameika Morris, Daniel Jenkins, Ronnie
Tucker, and Tonya Deberry reveals systemic illegality perpetrated by the City of Ferguson against
some of its poorest people. The City has engaged in the same conduct, as a matter of policy and
practice, against many other impoverished human beings on a daily basis for years, unlawfully
jailing people if they are too poor to pay debts from traffic tickets and other minor offenses. The
result is a Dickensian system that flagrantly violates the basic constitutional and human rights of
our community’s most vulnerable people.
By and through their attorneys and on behalf of a class of similarly situated
impoverished people, the Plaintiffs seek in this civil action the vindication of their fundamental
rights, compensation for the violations that they suffered, injunctive relief assuring that their rights
will not be violated again, and a declaration that the City’s conduct is unlawful. In the year 2015,
these practices have no place in our society.3
Nature of the Action
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to jail people when
they cannot afford to pay money owed to the City resulting from prior traffic tickets and other
minor offenses without conducting any inquiry into the person’s ability to pay and without
considering alternatives to imprisonment as required by federal and Missouri law.
The Plaintiffs make the allegations in this Complaint based on personal knowledge as to matters in which they have
had personal involvement and on information and belief as to all other matters. The Plaintiffs have attempted to obtain
basic jail and court records from the City, but have so far been unable to do so.
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City to jail indigent people for these
debts without informing them of their right to counsel and without providing adequate counsel.
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City to hold prisoners in the City
jail indefinitely unless and until the person’s family or friends can make a monetary payment
sufficient to satisfy the City. It is and has been the policy and practice of the City to bargain with
inmates and their families on an amount of money that the City will accept for release.
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City to arbitrarily and incrementally
reduce the amount of money required for release throughout a person’s indefinite detention,
eventually releasing the person for free if the City determines that it is unlikely to profit from
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City to issue and enforce invalid
arrest warrants, to threaten debtors that they will be jailed if they do not show up with money, to
hold debtors in jail for a week or more without any judicial appearance, and to set and subsequently
modify monetary payments necessary for release arbitrarily and without any formal process.
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City to confine impoverished people
who cannot afford their release in grotesque, dangerous, and inhumane conditions.
The Plaintiffs seek declaratory, injunctive, and compensatory relief.
Jurisdiction and Venue
This is a civil rights action arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, et
seq., and the First, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States
Constitution. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343.
Venue in this Court is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391.
Plaintiff Keilee Fant is a 37-year-old woman. Plaintiff Roelif Carter is a 62-year-
old man. Plaintiff Allison Nelson is a 23-year-old woman. Plaintiff Herbert Nelson Jr. is a 26year-old man. Plaintiff Alfred Morris is a 62-year-old man. Plaintiff Anthony Kimble is a 53year-old man. Plaintiff Donyale Thomas is a 36-year-old woman. Plaintiff Shameika Morris is a
30-year-old woman. Plaintiff Daniel Jenkins is a 27-year-old man. Plaintiff Ronnie Tucker is a
50-year-old man. Plaintiff Tonya DeBerry is a 52-year-old woman. All of the named Plaintiffs
are residents of Saint Louis County.
Defendant City of Ferguson is a municipal corporation, organized under the laws
of the State of Missouri. The Defendant operates the Ferguson City Jail and the Ferguson
The Plaintiffs’ Imprisonment
Keilee Fant is a 37-year-old woman and single mother. She works as a certified
nurse’s assistant and has been trying to support her family by doing similar work on and off for
nearly 20 years. In the past two decades, the City of Ferguson has jailed Ms. Fant more than a
dozen times for her inability to make monetary payments on old traffic tickets.
Ms. Fant was arrested while taking her children to school in October 2013.4 She
was taken to jail in the City of Jennings because of old traffic tickets in that city, and she was told
by Jennings jail staff that she would not be released unless she paid $300. She informed jail staff
As is the case for thousands of people, many of Ms. Fant’s traffic tickets have resulted from her inability to afford
to pay her other tickets, which has prevented her from getting her driver’s license back because of a state and municipal
government policy and practice of invalidating licenses for those who cannot afford to pay old tickets.
that she could not afford to pay $300 to the City of Jennings. After three days in jail, Jennings let
her out for free.
Ms. Fant’s supposed “release” from Jennings’s custody was just the beginning of a
Kafkaesque journey through the debtors’ prison network of Saint Louis County—a lawless and
labyrinthine scheme of dungeon-like municipal facilities and perpetual debt.
thousands of Saint Louis County residents, including the Plaintiffs in this case, undergo a similar
journey, buying or waiting their way out of jail after jail.
After Ms. Fant was “released” from the Jennings jail, the City of Jennings kept Ms.
Fant in its jail until her family could pay the several hundred dollars required for release by City
of Bellefontaine Neighbors. Bellefontaine Neighbors is so small that it does not have its own jail.
Instead, it paid the City of Jennings to confine its inmate debtors in the Jennings jail. After paying
the City of Bellefontaine Neighbors, Ms. Fant was “released” but kept in the Jennings jail for three
more days, supposedly, she was then told, in the “custody” of Velda City, until Velda City
responded to Jennings officials that it declined to pick her up. Ms. Fant was then sent to the
custody of Saint Louis County for unpaid tickets, where she was kept for three days before being
“released” from County custody. Although Ms. Fant was “released,” she was not set free. Ms.
Fant languished eight more days in the County jail because she could not afford the release
amounts for unpaid tickets in two other cities too small to have their own jail: the City of Normandy
and the City of Beverly Hills.
While confined in the Saint Louis County facility, jail officials coerced inmates
who could not afford to pay for phone calls or to buy food by offering free phone calls to family
members and candy in exchange for doing the jail laundry without monetary compensation.
After eight days, Ms. Fant was taken to court in the City of Maryland Heights,
where the judge “released” her for free. Nonetheless, Ms. Fant was still not free. Instead, she was
transported to Ferguson.
When she arrived in Ferguson, City jail staff told her that her release amount was
They told her that she would be held indefinitely until she paid it. After three days,
Ferguson jail staff came and informed her that they had decided to let her out for free.
Ms. Fant was again arrested and brought to the Jennings jail in January 2014. After
she could not afford to pay several hundred dollars initially demanded for her release, she was told
by jail staff that they would let her out if she paid $100. The guard told her that, because Jennings
had released her for free last time, he did not want to do that again. After six days, her family paid
$100, and she was again “released.” After her “release,” she was kept in the Jennings jail, but
shifted to the custody of Bellefontaine Neighbors and thenVelda City. She was then transferred
to the Saint Louis County jail. After her “release” from Saint Louis County, she was transported
to Maryland Heights for several days, and then to Ferguson.
When she arrived at the Ferguson jail, City jail staff told her that she would be held
indefinitely unless she paid approximately $1,400. Again, pursuant to City policy, she was not
provided a court date or an attorney.
Demoralized and weary of being transferred from jail to jail, Ms. Fant asked jail
staff if they would accept $1,000, which she thought her family could raise from friends and
relatives. The jail officer told her that he wanted to call the Chief of Police to ask if that amount
was sufficient. The Chief of Police approved her release if her family could bring $1,000 to the
Ferguson pay window, but jail staff told her that she had to get the cash that night or the deal would
be off. Her family came to Ferguson and bought her release from the Ferguson jail. She was
released from the Ferguson jail immediately after her family paid $1,000.
When she was released from the Ferguson jail, she was told by jail staff that she
should not go to court and that she did not have any future court dates. Instead, she was told to
make cash payments at the Ferguson Police Department. She was told that she would be jailed
again if she did not make payments.
During her repeated and indefinite jailings because of her inability to pay, Ms. Fant
was fired from several jobs because of absences. She was indigent and depending on food stamps
to supplement her income to feed her children.
Similar experiences happened to Ms. Fant more than a dozen times in the past two
decades, including one occasion in which she was held in jail by the City of Ferguson for nearly
50 days without a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shower, or change of clothes for unpaid traffic
tickets because she could not afford to buy her release. During that time, Ms. Fant missed her
father’s funeral. On that occasion, the City of Ferguson attempted to bargain with Ms. Fant’s
family to get them to pay several thousand dollars to secure her release.
Ms. Fant was never provided an attorney by the City or brought to court while in
custody in 2013 or 2014. During court appearances on her initial tickets that she attended while
not in custody several years before, the City of Ferguson was represented by an experienced
prosecutor. On several occasions, the City judge told her that she needed a lawyer because of the
complicated circumstances of her tickets and continued the case several times for her to hire a
lawyer. Each time, she told the judge that she could not afford to hire a lawyer. Eventually, the
City proceeded without providing her an attorney. At no point did the City conduct any meaningful
inquiry into her ability to pay or alternatives to incarceration.
On many occasions, Ms. Fant contacted the City in an effort to figure out how to
remove her warrants so that she would not be arrested and taken away from her children.
Consistent with City policy, she was told that the warrants could not be removed unless she paid
cash to the City.
Ms. Fant has endured materially the same inhumane and unsanitary Ferguson jail
conditions described in this Complaint. In addition to enduring overcrowding with other inmate
debtors, Ms. Fant was confined in a cell that lacked basic hygiene (for example, she was told that
she would not be given feminine products for menstruation), medical care, exercise, and adequate
On one occasion, an elderly woman being held because she could not afford a few
hundred dollars was shivering because the jail was very cold and because the jail staff refused to
give women more than one blanket. After Ms. Fant allowed the woman to share her blanket with
her, the guards began shouting at the women that they were “stanky ass dykes” and “dirty whores.”
Ferguson jail guards routinely insulted and verbally abused female inmate debtors.
On numerous occasions, referring to the grotesque conditions and lack of any feminine products,
showers, toothbrushes, or soap, guards mocked the impoverished women for the way that they
smelled. Male guards would shout things like: “you hoes stink” and “you need to wash out your
Ms. Fant still owes significant debts to the City. She is frightened that the City will
again jail her indefinitely until she and her family can pay enough to secure her release.
ii. Roelif Carter
Roelif Carter is a 62-year-old disabled military veteran. For more than a decade,
he has suffered daily from the debilitating and painful effects of a brain aneurism.
Mr. Carter was given tickets by the City of Ferguson more than ten years ago.
After receiving the assistance of a lawyer from the Veterans Administration, Mr.
Carter pled guilty and was assessed monetary fines for the traffic violations. He informed the court
that he was unable to afford the fines, and he was told to pay $100 per month.5
Mr. Carter was indigent and unable to afford the payments without serious hardship
in meeting the basic necessities of life. Nonetheless, having observed that the City kept people in
jail when they could not pay their tickets, Mr. Carter made the payments to the City clerk as often
as he could until he was unable to come up with enough money.
Mr. Carter asked the City clerk what to do if he was too poor to make a payment
by the first day of the month. Mr. Carter was told that, if he did not pay by that day, then a warrant
would issue for his arrest. On one occasion, Mr. Carter had not been able to get enough money by
the first day of the month and, frightened, he brought the money to the City on the second day of
the month. The clerk refused to accept the money. The clerk informed him that a warrant had
been issued for his arrest and that, in order to remove the warrant, he would now have to pay
several hundred more dollars. Mr. Carter could not afford to pay several hundred dollars.
Mr. Carter was arrested on that warrant in August 2010. He was informed by the
City jail guards that he would not be released from the jail unless he paid $600. Mr. Carter
informed City employees that he was too poor to afford that amount of money.
Mr. Carter and his wife depended on his disability payments and food stamps to
meet the basic necessities of life.
After receiving these initial tickets, Mr. Carter was routinely stopped and arrested by Ferguson police and charged
with minor offenses for years, including vehicle citations, not having his dog on a leash, and failure to obey the orders
of a police officer. Each time Mr. Carter was arrested, he was held in jail because he was unable to afford to pay for
his release, and each time he was eventually released for free after three days.
After three days in jail, the City released Mr. Carter without requiring any payment
and without bringing Mr. Carter to court.
After Mr. Carter’s release, a City official informed Mr. Carter’s wife that Mr.
Carter’s total fines had increased and were now in excess of $1,000. The City official did not
explain why the total amount had increased without any formal process. Upon his release from
jail, the City again required Mr. Carter to pay $100 per month without any process or inquiry into
whether he could afford that amount.
On a later occasion, Mr. Carter’s wife was informed that a warrant had been issued
for her husband’s arrest, even though Ms. Carter had made the required monthly payment herself.
After Ms. Carter showed proof of payment, the City recalled the warrant.
With the help of friends and family, Mr. Carter and his wife were able to raise $100
to make payments to the City for a number of months.
Mr. Carter was again unable to make a monthly $100 payment on several occasions
in 2012 and 2013. The City issued warrants for his arrest each time, and Mr. Carter was arrested
in August 2012, November 2012, and July 2013. On each occasion, City officials told Mr. Carter
that he would be held in jail unless he paid several hundred dollars. Mr. Carter told City officials
that he could not afford that amount of money. Because he was too poor to pay the City what it
demanded, Mr. Carter remained in jail each time. On each occasion, Mr. Carter was released for
free after three days without being brought to court. On each occasion, the amount of money that
he owed in total was increased by the City of Ferguson.
After his release from jail on each occasion, Mr. Carter and his wife made $100
payments every time that they could for several years until 2014 because they were told by City
officials that Mr. Carter would be kept in jail if they did not pay. The Carters lived in constant
fear of not being able to both pay the City and have enough money for utilities, groceries, clothing,
and other necessities of life.
The amount Mr. and Ms. Carter paid to the City is a total of several thousand
The City never conducted any meaningful inquiry into Mr. Carter’s indigence and
ability to pay, and it never appointed him an attorney.
Mr. Carter and his wife observed numerous people come to court who could not
afford their payments. They observed City employees at the payment window tell numerous
people on many occasions that they needed to bring money by a specific date or time or a warrant
would be issued for their arrest.
Each time Mr. Carter was held in the Ferguson jail was a humiliating and dangerous
experience. He was not permitted a toothbrush or toothpaste and was not permitted to shower or
wash his clothes. He and other inmates were denied hand soap and forced to live and sleep near
an uncleaned toilet with visible excrement and a vile stench. The floors and walls were also
uncleaned and contained what appeared to be mucus and blood.
The water available to inmates, released from an apparatus connected to the top of
the toilet, caused Mr. Carter to develop a sore throat whenever he drank it.
Jail staff also refused to allow Mr. Carter to be given the medication that he takes
for high blood pressure and the head pain medication that he has needed since his brain aneurism.
In June 2014, Mr. and Mrs. Carter were both arrested by the City for new minor municipal offenses. Each was told
that they would not be released from jail unless they paid $300 in cash. Both informed the City that they could not
afford to pay that amount of money. After three days, Mr. Carter was again released for free. Mrs. Carter, however,
who complained to jail staff repeatedly about inadequate medical attention, was forced to remain in jail because she
could not come up with the money. The next day, Mr. Carter negotiated a lower release amount and paid $200 to free
his wife from jail. Ms. Carter had to be taken to the hospital a couple of days after her release because the jail refused
to give her the blood pressure medication that she needs even though her family had brought her medicine to the jail.
Mr. Carter was arrested again in August 2014. He was again told that he would not be released unless he
paid cash to the City. Again, after three days, Mr. Carter was released for free.
Jail staff would not even let Mr. Carter’s wife bring him the prescribed medication. As a result,
each jail stay for Mr. Carter resulted in enormous physical pain and discomfort.
Each time Mr. Carter was kept in the Ferguson jail, he met many other men who
were being held there solely because they were too poor to pay the release amount required by the
City. Many of the men told him that they had also been trapped in a cycle of debt and jailing by
the City and that they could not see a way out.
The jail conditions experienced and witnessed by Mr. Carter are materially the same
as the conditions described throughout this Complaint and to those described by numerous other
witnesses and victims of the City’s policies and practices over a consistent period of many years.
Mr. Carter still lives in constant fear of being jailed again because of his inability
to make monetary payments.
Mr. Carter has also been kept in custody for old unpaid fines and costs because he
could not afford to pay for his release by the City of Berkeley and the City of Cool Valley. Paying
for his release from one would sometimes result in transport to another, where he would be held
until he could pay once more.7
Allison Nelson is a 23-year-old woman. She works now at a clothing store making
near minimum wage.
Ms. Nelson has been jailed on two occasions by the City because she has not been
able to pay fines and costs from traffic tickets. On each occasion, Ms. Nelson has been held, even
though she was indigent, because she could not afford a sum of money set by the City.
Other jails, however, permitted his wife to give him the medication that he needs.
In July 2012, Ms. Nelson was arrested and taken to the Jennings jail. After her
family borrowed money to have her released from Jennings, she was transported to Ferguson. Jail
officials in Ferguson told her that she would be held indefinitely until she paid approximately
$700. For several days, she was held while her mother attempted to borrow money to buy her out.
Eventually, her mother called the City and told the City that she could raise only $300. The clerk
told her mother to call back so that the clerk could check with a supervisor. The supervisor agreed
to accept $300, and Ms. Nelson was released.
In November 2013, Ms. Nelson was again arrested for non-payment and brought to
the Jennings jail. Ms. Nelson was told by jail staff that she would not be released unless she paid
approximately $1,000. She informed the jail staff that she could not afford to pay. After four
days, the jail staff informed her that her release amount would be lowered to $100. Her parents
came to the jail and paid $100, and she was released immediately in the early morning hours of
Ms. Nelson was then brought to the Ferguson jail. Ferguson jail staff told her that
she would be held indefinitely and miss Thanksgiving with her family unless she paid several
hundred dollars. In the morning, after shift change, a new guard came and said that, since it was
Thanksgiving, they would agree to let her out if she could find someone to pay $100. Ms. Nelson’s
family borrowed money and came as fast as they could to Ferguson and brought her home for
While in the Ferguson jail, Ms. Nelson was surrounded by other women who were
there because they could not afford to pay the amount that Ferguson required for their release.
Ms. Nelson endured materially the same deplorable jail conditions as the other
Plaintiffs. She was kept in a cell and denied access to a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. The
walls were moldy and covered in gum, paint chips, blood, mucus, and feces.
The jail did not provide clean floor mats, and also passed dirty blankets from
previous inmates to new inmates without cleaning them.
If the inmates wanted water, she and the other women were forced to drink warm
water from a mechanism above the toilet, which smelled like a sewer.
Inmates were given a honey bun in the morning and a pot pie for lunch and dinner.
Although Ms. Nelson did not own any significant assets and was indigent, no
meaningful inquiry into her indigence was ever made by the City of Ferguson, and the City never
appointed an attorney to represent her.
The threat of jail and constant cycle of increasing debts to the City of Ferguson has
been a constant fact of daily life for Ms. Nelson for several years. She has been afraid to leave her
own home or even get into a car as a passenger. Ms. Nelson’s dream for years has been to join the
Navy. After passing the relevant tests as a teenager, she was told by her recruiter that she could
not join until she fixed all of her unpaid traffic warrants and tickets, which she has not been able
to afford to do.8
Ms. Nelson has also been kept in custody for old traffic ticket debts because she
could not afford to pay her way out by the City of Chesterfield, the City of Pagedale, the City of
Florissant, the City of Country Club Hills, and the City of Bellefontaine Neighbors.
Herbert Nelson Jr.
Military recruiters routinely refuse to accept applicants with traffic warrants for their arrest. ArchCity Defenders
currently represent five clients who desire to enlist in the military but cannot do so as a result of warrants being issued
for their arrest as a result of unpaid fines.
Herbert Nelson Jr. is 26 years old. Over the past four years, he has been jailed at
least four times in the City of Ferguson when he could not afford to pay old fines and court costs.
Mr. Nelson was arrested for non-payment in April 2011 and taken into custody by
the City of Jennings. When he was brought to the Jennings jail, he was told that his release amount
was $2,000 based on his unpaid debts. He informed jail staff that he could not afford to pay. Each
day that he was in jail, his release amount was lowered by jail staff. On the third day, his release
amount was lowered to $300, and he was released after his mother borrowed money to buy him
out. He was then transported to the Ferguson jail because Ferguson had issued a warrant when
Mr. Nelson had not made a payment on an old ticket.
Ferguson jail staff informed him that he would be held in jail indefinitely until he
paid $400. Mr. Nelson was scared and panicked. He felt trapped and did not know how he would
be able to get out of jail. After a day, his mother went to the Ferguson jail with $200 that she had
collected from family and friends and said that it was all the family could afford. City employees
decided to accept that amount and let Mr. Nelson out of jail.
Mr. Nelson was arrested again in October 2013. Again, he was told by Jennings
jail staff that his release amount was approximately $2,000. Again the release amount was
incrementally lowered without any formal legal process. This time, on the fourth day, his release
amount was reduced to $200, and his mother again borrowed the money to buy his release. When
he was released from Jennings, he was taken to Ferguson, supposedly because he had outstanding
warrants from the same old tickets.
Mr. Nelson was told by Ferguson jail staff that he would be held indefinitely until
he paid $400. After a day, Mr. Nelson was told that his release amount was reduced to $300. His
mother then raised $300 from his co-workers, family, and friends, and came to the Ferguson jail
and bought his release.
Mr. Nelson was arrested again in February 2014. After negotiating his release from
the Jennings jail after his release amount was incrementally lowered, Mr. Nelson learned that he
would be taken again to the Ferguson jail.
Mr. Nelson was told by Ferguson jail staff that he would be held indefinitely until
he paid $400. After a day, Mr. Nelson was told that his release amount was reduced to $300. His
mother then again raised $300 from his co-workers, family, and friends, and came to the Ferguson
jail and bought his release.
Mr. Nelson was arrested again in September 2014 and taken to the Jennings jail.
After his family bought his release from the Jennings jail, he was taken to the Ferguson jail. Again,
he was told by jail staff that his release amount was approximately $400. The next day, the release
amount was reduced to $300, and his mother again borrowed the money to buy him out of jail.
Mr. Nelson endured and witnessed the deplorable jail conditions described in this
For example, he was forced to remain with other inmate debtors in a filthy,
overcrowded cell that reeked of excrement. He and the other inmates were not given any
toothbrush, toothpaste, handsoap, showers, or a change of underwear.
The cells were so
overcrowded during his multiple periods of incarceration that men were forced to sleep on the
floor next to the open, uncleaned toilet. The walls in the Ferguson jail were caked with old food,
dust, blood, and mucus. Blankets and mats were transferred to new inmates without being washed.
The food rations given to Mr. Nelson and other inmates lacked basic nutrition.
Inmates were served a honey bun or donut in the morning, a small pot pie for lunch, and another
pot pie for dinner. Mr. Nelson and other inmates were not given drinks and were forced to drink
smelly water out of a shared faucet connected to the same apparatus as the toilet. Inmates were
dehydrated because they were afraid to drink out of the faucet.
During one of his periods in the Jennings jail, Mr. Nelson developed two irritated
areas on his leg that became infected and turned into boils the size of eggs. This leg injury has
subsequently persisted in various iterations for approximately two years. On a later period of
incarceration in the Jennings jail, his boils flared and popped, and he was in excruciating pain. On
his arrival to the Ferguson jail, the jail staff refused to treat him. They refused to give him
antibiotics, painkillers, or a doctor, even though the pants that he was wearing filled with blood
and puss. He found it difficult to sit because of the position of the infection on his legs. Finally,
after his transfer from the Ferguson jail, a nurse in the Saint Louis City Justice Center examined
Mr. Nelson and told him that the infection was related to the jail conditions because his skin had
been extremely dirty. The nurse told him that she was amazed at the large size of the boils. She
said that she believed that it was turning into staph infection, although he had not been separated
from the inmates in the Ferguson jail.
Mr. Nelson was indigent for the entire duration of his jailings by the City of
Ferguson. Mr. Nelson now works as a painter and is dedicated to supporting his five-year-old son.
Because of his recent jailings—including one while he was in uniform on his way to an important
painting job—he has lost a number of jobs and finds it difficult to be re-hired because painting
contractors know that he could be jailed on the way to any painting job. On one occasion, a coworker had to fill in for Mr. Nelson and then use the money earned from the job to pay for his
release from jail. Because of his unpaid ticket debts, Mr. Nelson is not able to grow his own
painting business because he cannot obtain his driver’s license, which he needs to drive his tools
to job sites.
During Mr. Nelson’s most recent 2014 incarceration, he finally broke down and
cried after he missed an important painting job. The cycle of jail and debt has prevented him from
getting on his feet and living any kind of meaningful life with his son. Because of his repeated
jailings, it has been difficult for him to maintain steady employment and to meet the basic
necessities of life for his family.
Mr. Nelson has been also held in jail because of his inability to make payments in
the City of Jennings, the City of Florissant, Saint Louis County, and the City of Maryland Heights.
Alfred Morris is a 62-year-old man. He is a disabled veteran who relies on a
pension from the Department of Veterans Affairs to meet the basic necessities of life. Although
Mr. Morris cannot perform physical work because of serious medical problems, he volunteers at
the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital to sit with and assist other ill veterans.
Mr. Morris has been jailed on at least four occasions in the past five years by the
City of Ferguson when he has been unable to make monetary payments.
The City of Ferguson locked Mr. Morris in a cage because he failed to pay fines
and costs associated with violations of a municipal ordinance that purports to prohibit people from
having friends, relatives, or romantic partners stay overnight in their homes without naming the
person on a written document in advance. Ferguson police accused Mr. Morris of violating this
ordinance because they searched his home and found women’s articles.
In 2011, Mr. Morris was arrested and taken to the Ferguson jail. He was told that
he would not be released from the jail unless he paid $500. Mr. Morris was eventually released
When Mr. Morris appeared in court, he announced that he wished to plead “not
guilty.” The judge told him to sit in a corner while other cases were handled. Mr. Morris watched
as the City prosecutor and City judge jailed and threatened with jail unrepresented people when
they could not pay the money that they had been told to pay without any inquiry into their indigence
or representation of counsel. Finally, the judge told Mr. Morris that when he came back for his
next court date, he needed to have an attorney with him. Mr. Morris was not able to afford an
attorney, and he was afraid to go back to court because he had been told that he was required to
hire an attorney. A warrant was issued for his arrest.
Mr. Morris was arrested on the warrant in early 2012. When he arrived at the jail,
he was again told that he would be held indefinitely until he paid approximately $500. Mr. Morris
became extremely ill in the Ferguson jail because jail staff, pursuant to their policy, refused to give
him his blood pressure or HIV medication. The jail was so crowded that Mr. Morris, even though
seriously ill, was forced to spend the first night sitting on the edge of a bed in which another man
was sleeping. The next night, he was given a space on the floor of the cell to sleep. When Mr.
Morris complained for the entire day about his blood pressure, jail staff threatened to charge him
with another offense if he were faking an illness and that they would make sure that he got another
case. After Mr. Morris became dizzy with unbearable head pain, jail staff were forced to call
paramedics. Two days after his arrest, he was taken to the hospital and let out of the jail for free.9
Mr. Morris otherwise endured materially the same unsanitary jail conditions as
described in this Complaint. For example, during each of his stays in the Ferguson jail, Mr. Morris
was forced to stay on mats that had bed bugs and lice. He observed that jail staff would not wash
or otherwise sanitize the sleeping mats when they were given from one inmate to another. On
Mr. Morris suffered similar blood pressure problems on other occasions in the Ferguson jail.
none of his stays in the Ferguson jail was Mr. Morris ever allowed to take a shower, given any
handsoap, or allowed to brush his teeth.
Mr. Morris still lives in constant fear of being jailed again because of his inability
to make monetary payments.
Mr. Morris has been also held in jail because of his inability to make payments in
the City of Cool Valley and the City of Maplewood.
Anthony Kimble is a 53-year-old man.
In the past three years, he has been jailed multiple times by the City of Ferguson
for unpaid debt from old traffic tickets.
In February 2012, Mr. Kimble was arrested and brought to the Ferguson jail as a
result of his non-payment of costs and fines from traffic tickets. He was told by jail staff that he
would not be released unless he paid $500 dollars to the City. Mr. Kimble informed jail staff that
he could not afford to pay the City.
After several days, Mr. Kimble’s family got money from a federal tax refund. Mr.
Kimble’s family came to Ferguson and paid $500 for his release.
Mr. Kimble was next arrested and brought to the Ferguson jail in February 2013.
When Mr. Kimble arrived at the jail, the booking officer told him that he would be held in the jail
until he paid $600 to the City. After two days, Mr. Kimble was informed that the City would
accept $500 for his release. After two more days, he was informed that the City would accept
$400 for his release. After two more days, Mr. Kimble was informed that the City would accept
$300. Each time, Mr. Kimble informed jail staff that he could not afford to pay the City.
Mr. Kimble was not brought to court and not provided an attorney. No inquiry was
made into his ability to pay.
Finally, after it was clear that Mr. Kimble could not pay, he was released by jail
staff for free. He had spent nearly two weeks in jail and had lost approximately 12-15 pounds.
When Mr. Kimble was released, he was told by jail staff that he should not return
to court, but that he needed instead to go to the Ferguson police department by March 1 to pay
what he owed.
Mr. Kimble was not able to come up with the money that he owed by March 1 and
therefore did not go to the police department to bring the money. At the time, he was working as
a machine operator and struggling to survive and to make payments for rent, utilities, food, and
court ordered child support. Despite being told that he should not go to court, Mr. Kimble was
later informed that a warrant had been issued for his arrest for failure to appear.
When Mr. Kimble learned of his warrant, he was also informed of a City policy
that he could avoid arrest and have the warrant removed if he paid several hundred dollars. Mr.
Kimble was not able to have the warrant removed because he was indigent. Although the City
does not inform unrepresented people of the option, it also has a policy of allowing warrants to be
removed for free if an attorney is retained and enters a notice of appearance on a case.
During his time in the Ferguson jail, Mr. Kimble and other inmates would ask when
they would be released. Mr. Kimble and other inmates were told repeatedly by Ferguson jail staff
to “shut up” and that they would be released “whenever we’re ready to release you.”
Mr. Kimble endured materially the same grotesque and inadequate jail conditions
as described in this Complaint. During his visits to the jail, he was offered a shower on only one
occasion. He was never provided with soap or a toothbrush and toothpaste. The cells were
overcrowded with men who could not afford to pay for their release, and the ratio of men to beds
was often 3 or 4 people for every available bed. He was forced to sleep next to a dirty toilet without
sufficient blankets to keep him warm and surrounded by walls covered with urine, blood, and
mucus. He was denied access to laundry to clean his clothes.
Mr. Kimble and other inmate debtors devised a system of rotation so that the person
stuck in jail the longest would rotate to the bed, and the next inmate would take his place when he
paid for his release or when he was let out for free.
The City only provided a honey bun for breakfast and pot pie for lunch and dinner.
Mr. Kimble was often unable to eat breakfast because guards would offer breakfast at 1:00 a.m.
by waking up inmates and telling them that they had to eat breakfast then or not at all.
Mr. Kimble still lives in constant fear of being jailed again because of his inability
to make monetary payments.
Mr. Kimble has also been jailed for nonpayment of old traffic tickets in City of Pine
Lawn and the City of Berkeley.
Donyale Thomas is a 36-year-old woman.
Ms. Thomas was arrested and brought to the Ferguson jail in 2011 because she had
an unpaid balance of old court costs and fines. Ms. Thomas had been a passenger in a car, and
officers had asked for her ID and arrested her when a check on her ID revealed the old case.
Ms. Thomas was given a thin blanket and a mat and taken to a cell with one bed
and three women. Ms. Thomas was told to sleep on the floor. Ms. Thomas was told by jail staff
that she would be held indefinitely.
When Ms. Thomas’s mother called the jail, her mother was told that she could get
her daughter out of jail by paying several hundred dollars. Ms. Thomas and her mother were
indigent and unable to pay. Ms. Thomas was unemployed and relying on food stamps and SSI
disability payments to meet the basic necessities of life for herself and her three children.
Ms. Thomas was kept in the Ferguson jail for over a week. She was not taken
before a judge and was not provided a lawyer.
Ms. Thomas was suffering at the time from a severe anxiety attack, bipolar disorder,
and schizophrenia. Ms. Thomas has difficulty being in small, confined spaces. Ms. Thomas would
begin to hyperventilate and ask jail guards for treatment because she could not breathe. Her
mother, frightened for her daughter’s life, attempted to bring her prescription medication for these
illnesses, but jail staff refused, and Ms. Thomas was denied medical treatment in the Ferguson jail.
Finally, after more than a week, the City informed Ms. Thomas that it would accept
$200 for her release. Her mother raised $200, and Ms. Thomas was released.
Ms. Thomas has been jailed by the City of Ferguson on many occasions since she
was a teenager. Each time, she has been unable to buy her release because of her indigence.
On a subsequent occasion, Ms. Thomas was struggling with her mental health
problems and overcome with depression from being trapped in a cycle of debt and jailing for traffic
tickets in several municipalities that took her away from her children repeatedly.
languishing in jail in the City of Berkeley because she could not afford to pay for her release, Ms.
Thomas attempted to commit suicide by strangling herself with her brassiere. She was taken to
the hospital after the other women in her cell started screaming.
Ms. Thomas still lives in constant fear of being jailed again because of her inability
to make monetary payments.
Over the years, when Ms. Thomas has appeared in the Ferguson court, she has seen
people jailed because they were unable to make monetary payments and without being provided
any attorney or any meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay.
Ms. Thomas has also languished in jail for non-payment in the City of Jennings,
the City of Berkeley, the City of Pine Lawn, and the City of Dellwood.
Shameika Morris is a 30-year-old woman.
When she was 17 years old, Ms. Morris was charged with a minor municipal
offense in Ferguson. When she was brought to the jail, the jail staff refused to let her use the
bathroom, and Ms. Morris urinated on herself in the booking area. Jail staff were upset and
retaliated against her by keeping her in jail for more than two weeks without bringing her to court
and by telling her that she would not be released unless she paid $900. After more than two weeks,
Ms. Morris was finally released for free.
Since then, Ms. Morris has been arrested and jailed by Ferguson on more than five
occasions resulting from that initial offense.
In 2011, Ms. Morris was arrested and jailed by Ferguson. When she arrived at the
jail, she was told that she would not be released unless she paid approximately $800. Ms. Morris
told jail staff that she was too poor to afford that amount. Each day, jail staff informed her that
her release amount was reduced by $100. When the release amount was reduced to several
hundred dollars, jail staff refused to reduce it for several more days. Because Ms. Morris had not
been able to contact her family or her job, her mother and father and her employer were all very
worried and thought she had disappeared.
Finally, after more than a week, her mother called around to various cities and
learned that she was being held by Ferguson. The Ferguson clerk negotiated with Ms. Morris’s
mother, and the clerk agreed after to reduce the amount the City would accept so that the family
could use Ms. Morris’s tax refund check of $200. A family friend came to the jail and paid $200
for her release. Ms. Morris was not brought to court and not given an attorney.
Later in 2011, Ms. Morris was again arrested and jailed by Ferguson. She was told
that she would not be released unless she paid approximately $800. Jail staff informed her each
day that her release amount was reduced. After two days, jail staff told her that her release amount
was reduced to $500. The following day, jail staff then let Ms. Morris out for free. Ms. Morris
was not brought to court and was not given an attorney.
In 2012, Ms. Morris was again arrested and jailed by Ferguson. She was told that
she would not be released unless she paid approximately $800. Jail staff informed her each day
that her release amount had been reduced. After two days, jail staff walked around to all of the
inmates and told them their new release amounts and let Ms. Morris out for free. Ms. Morris was
not brought to court and was not given an attorney.
At all times that she was jailed, Ms. Morris was indigent and struggling to meet the
basic necessities of life for her and her children. She depends on food stamps to survive.
On many occasions, Ms. Morris has attempted to clear her outstanding warrants in
Ferguson, including occasions in which she has attempted to clear the warrants so that she could
get a job. On numerous occasions over the past several years, she has called the City clerk and
asked how to remove her warrants. The City clerk routinely informed Ms. Morris that it is City
policy not to remove warrants unless she paid hundreds of dollars, and the clerk told her that she
needed to have the money with her if she came to court to turn herself in. Ms. Morris was not able
to come up with enough money to remove her warrants.
As is true for the other Plaintiffs, Ms. Morris’s experiences in the Ferguson jail
have been among the most humiliating and dangerous experiences of her life. Every morning,
inmates waited in anticipation for jail staff to tell them if their release amounts would be lowered.
They often begged jail staff to lower the amounts and pleaded with them to consider their poverty
and their need to be with their children.
In all of her time in the Ferguson jail, she has only been offered a shower on one
occasion—during her first stay over ten years ago. She has never been offered a toothbrush,
toothpaste, or handsoap. During her stays, she and other inmates have routinely noticed blood and
mucus smeared on the walls of their cells, and the women were forced to share used blankets and
mats because the City jail staff does not launder materials when inmates leave the jail before
passing them to other inmates.
Many of the women in the jail became chronically dehydrated because they were
afraid to drink the water, which has often been yellow in color.
During her time in the Ferguson jail, Ms. Morris and other women spent many
nights crying and hungry.
The guards routinely taunted the female inmates. Guards told women that they
were “nasty” and “fat” and mocked them that they would not get out until guards let them out.
Ms. Morris is so terrified of languishing again in the Ferguson jail on her warrants
that she is afraid even to visit her mother, who lives in Ferguson.
Daniel Jenkins is a 28-year-old man.
Mr. Jenkins has been kept in jail by the City of Ferguson on at least five occasions
over the past several years because of his inability to make a monetary payment on old debts from
tickets. On each occasion, he was brought to the Ferguson jail and told that he would be held
indefinitely unless he paid several hundred dollars. He was not appointed an attorney and no
meaningful inquiry was made into his indigence. He was kept in jail until his family could come
up with the money to buy his release or until the City decided to release him for free.
Mr. Jenkins is indigent and struggles to meet the basic necessities of life for himself
and his two young children.
Like the other Plaintiffs in this case, each arrest and jailing by Ferguson was part
of a longer and indefinite journey through the Saint Louis County debtors’ prison network for Mr.
Jenkins. On some of his arrests, Mr. Jenkins has been taken to seven different jails. He is typically
held in jail until he either gets family to come up with money or until jail staff decide to release
him for free.
Mr. Jenkins has been jailed for non-payment by the City of Bel-Ridge, the City of
Bel-Nor, the City of Moline Acres, Saint Louis County, the City of Florissant, the City of Welston,
the City of Dellwood, the City of Maryland Heights, the City of Beverly Hills, the City of Pine
Lawn, and the City of Bellefontaine Neighbors.
Ronnie Tucker is a 50-year-old man.
Mr. Tucker was arrested and taken to the Ferguson jail in May 2013. Ferguson jail
staff informed him that he was being kept in the Ferguson jail pursuant to a warrant in traffic cases
from the City of Cool Valley, which paid Ferguson to house its inmate debtors. Ferguson jail staff
told him that he would not be released from custody unless he paid $1,000. After several days,
Mr. Tucker was taken to court in Cool Valley, and his sister was able to raise enough money to
pay for his release.
When Mr. Tucker was “released” from the custody of Cool Valley, he was returned
to the Ferguson jail.10 Ferguson jail staff informed him that he was now being held by the City of
Ferguson and that he would not be released unless he paid $600.
Mr. Tucker was indigent. At the time of his jailing by Ferguson, Mr. Tucker was
working part time as a roofer and surviving on food stamps to meet the basic necessities of life.
At no point was any meaningful judicial inquiry made into his ability to pay, and he was not
provided an attorney. Having just bought Mr. Tucker’s release from Cool Valley custody, his
sister could no longer afford to pay any more money to buy his release.
Mr. Tucker spent more than ten additional days in the Ferguson jail because he
could not afford to pay the $600 release amount. Eventually, the City let him out for free and told
him to return to court. He had not been brought to court or given an attorney the entire time. No
inquiry had been made into his indigence.
Prior to his next court date, Mr. Tucker was taken to the hospital, where he was
admitted to have surgery. He called the Ferguson clerk from the hospital and said that he would
not be able to make his court appearance. Pursuant to City policy, he was told by the clerk that he
would get a warrant for not showing up in court even if he were in the hospital. He would have to
pay several hundred dollars to remove the warrant.
Mr. Tucker experienced materially the same jail conditions as alleged in this
Complaint and described by the other Plaintiffs and numerous witnesses.
He also spent some time during this period in a holding cell in Cool Valley prior to being transported to Ferguson.
Mr. Tucker was never allowed to shower and spent the entire period of weeks in
the same clothes without washing them. In addition to languishing in the stench of his own sweat
and filth, he was not given any handsoap or allowed to brush his teeth. He and other inmates
begged to be allowed to wash themselves, but staff refused. Instead, multiple inmates were forced
to sleep on the dirty floor because there were not enough beds to accommodate all of the debtors.
He was forced to sleep next to a dirty toilet and surrounded by walls covered with urine, blood,
and mucus. He was not given sufficient covering to cope with the cold temperatures in the cell.
Ferguson jail guards also routinely taunted their prisoners for not being able to
afford to get out. Guards told the men that they would stay in the Ferguson jail until the guards
were ready to let them out.
Mr. Tucker was not permitted any recreation or exercise, and he spent the entire
period without leaving the cell except to go to the court in Cool Valley.
Mr. Tucker and the other men in his cell could hear female prisoners screaming
from other cells about not being provided products for hygiene.
Mr. Tucker has also been jailed for debts from unpaid tickets in Saint Louis County,
the City of Jennings, the City of Dellwood, and City of Moline Acres.
xi. Tonya DeBerry
Ms. DeBerry is a 52-year-old woman. She has been jailed on numerous occasions
for nonpayment of tickets by the City of Ferguson.
In January 2014, Ms. DeBerry was pulled over for a traffic violation. She was
jailed in Saint Louis County for a day until her family paid $300 to have her released. When she
was released from the custody of the County, she was transported to Ferguson.
When she arrived at the Ferguson jail, staff told her that she would be kept in jail
unless she paid several hundred dollars. After two nights in jail, a guard came around to her cell
and asked her how much she could “come up with.” She told the guard that she could probably
raise $300, and Ferguson jail staff let her out after her daughter arrived with $300 borrowed from
a neighbor.11 Ms. DeBerry was then transported to the Jennings jail because of unpaid tickets.
Ms. DeBerry experienced the same unlawful and deplorable conditions in the
Ferguson jail as described in this Complaint. She was denied a toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap,
and she was forced to stay in a cell with a vile stench and visible mold.
The City also arrested and kept in its jail for indefinite periods both of her teenage
children because they could not afford to pay old debts. Ms. DeBerry has, on numerous occasions,
called the City and negotiated a release amount for her children. When she offers an amount, the
City clerk seeks permission from a supervisor to accept that amount or to reject it. In this manner,
she has bought her children out of the Ferguson jail on several occasions in the past several years.
Ms. DeBerry was repeatedly forced to choose between raising money to get her
children released from the Ferguson jail or raising money to make her own debt payments to the
City and to other neighboring municipalities.
The City’s Policies and Practices
The treatment of the Plaintiffs was caused by and is representative of the City’s
policies and practices concerning collecting unpaid fines, fees, costs, and surcharges relating to
traffic tickets and other minor offenses for at least the past five years.12
Ms. DeBerry was taken to the Jennings jail in April 2011 and told that she would not be released unless she paid
$300 to the City of Ferguson. When her family borrowed money and took it to Ferguson, Jennings released her.
Unless otherwise mentioned in this Complaint, the policies, practices, and procedures of the City of Ferguson
described have been in existence for at least the past five years.
It is the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to use its municipal court and
its jail as significant sources of revenue generation for the City. The money to be brought into the
City through the municipal court is budgeted by the City in advance.13 As a result, the entire
municipal government apparatus, including municipal court officials and City jailors, has a
significant and corrupting incentive to operate the court and the jail in a way that maximizes
revenues, not justice.
Decisions regarding the operation of the court and the jail—including but not
limited to the assessment of fines, fees, costs,14 and surcharges; the availability and conditions of
payment plans; the setting and re-setting of amounts required for release from jail; the issuance
and withdrawal of arrest warrants; and the non-appointment of an attorney—are significantly
influenced by and based on maximizing revenues collected rather than on legitimate penological
In 2014, the City of Ferguson issued an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants
per household and almost 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid
debt for tickets. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of traffic cases filed by the City of Ferguson
increased by nearly 50%.
In Ferguson, blacks were significantly more likely to be stopped, searched, and
arrested than whites, even though whites were more likely to possess illegal contraband when
searched. Although whites make up more than 29% of the population in Ferguson, they constitute
only 12.7% of traffic stops and 6.9% of arrests. The same financial pressures and corrupting
The City uses the money collected through these procedures to help fund the City jail, to pay Municipal Court
judicial salaries, to pay City Attorney’s Office salaries, and to fund other portions of the City budget.
Missouri Law requires costs to be waived for the indigent, see Mo. Code § 479.260, but the City ignores that law.
influences thus infect City police decisions, including decisions about conducting traffic stops,
issuing tickets, and making arrests.
Over the past five years, the small City of Ferguson has, according to its public
records, earned approximately $10 million from its municipal court fines, fees, costs, and
surcharges. A proportional per capita budgetary revenue stream from municipal court fees for the
entire Saint Louis metropolitan region would be more than $1,300,000,000.
i. Arbitrary and Indefinite Detention of the Indigent
As each of the Plaintiffs’ cases illustrates, the City of Ferguson has adopted a policy
and practice of arresting people when they owe unpaid debt from old traffic tickets and other minor
offenses. When those arrestees are booked at the Ferguson jail, they are told by jail staff that they
can be released immediately, but only if they pay cash to the City of Ferguson. If they cannot pay
the City, they are told that they will be held indefinitely.
The amount of cash that Ferguson requires for release is based on the total debt
owed by the person from their old traffic or other misdemeanor cases.
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to hold people in
jail unless and until they or their families pay the City.
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to gradually and
incrementally reduce the amount of money required to buy a person’s release. The reason for this
policy is to generate as much money as possible. Some people’s families are able to borrow and
raise significant money up front to buy the release of their loved one within hours or days. The
longer a person stays in the Ferguson jail, however, the more it costs the City and the more clear
it is that the person’s family cannot raise enough money. Thus, the City’s policy and practice is
to lower the amount periodically on the assumption that the person can raise at least some money
to buy his or her release.
As a matter of policy and practice, City jail staff and supervisors attempt to
negotiate or bargain with the person or the person’s family concerning the amount of money that
they are able to pay. This bargaining takes place both inside the jail with the inmate and over the
phone or in person at the clerk’s office with the inmate’s family.
In many cases, after significant jail time, the City will release the person for free if
it is clear that the City cannot extract any money from the person during that jail stay.
Inmates find out about these incremental reductions by asking jail staff every
morning what their new required payment is. Some days they are told that it has remained the
same, and other days they are told that it has been reduced. Inmates are then usually given an
opportunity to use the telephone to call family or friends who might be able to come up with
enough money to pay for their release. The reductions do not happen as the result of any formal
The City’s incremental reductions of the amount required for release are designed
also to punish debtors for non-payment on the theory that time in jail will encourage impoverished
people to pay in the future if they know that they will be jailed for non-payment. These threats
result in people and families borrowing money at high rates of interest to release a loved one or
taking money otherwise needed for food, diapers, rent, clothing, and utilities and giving it to the
City of Ferguson instead. The result has been widespread hardship for the impoverished people
of Ferguson, whose local government has decided to make families choose between feeding
hungry children and letting a loved one languish in jail.
These policies and practices have created a culture of fear among the City’s poorest
residents, who are afraid even to go to the City police department or the City court to explain their
indigence because they know they will be jailed by the City without any meaningful process. The
same fear motivates many very poor City residents to sacrifice food, clothing, utilities, sanitary
home repairs, and other basic necessities of life in order to scrape together money to pay traffic
debts to the City.
From the perspective of City officials, these coercive threats are successful. They
are successful because the threats and jailings have been crucial to pressuring family members—
who have no legal obligation to pay any money to the City on behalf of indigent relatives or friends
who owe money from old civil judgments—to come up with money in order to get their loved
ones released from jail. They have also been crucial in getting low-income people to forgo basic
necessities of life in order to pay the City in an attempt to avoid jail. It is only through this illegal
confinement and threat of confinement that the City is able to collect that additional money that
any normal creditor could not.
The basic scheme of the City of Ferguson is to extort—through the threat of
physical confinement—money from debtors who are otherwise unable to afford to pay both the
basic necessities of life and their debts to the City. The City’s policies and practices have resulted
in the community knowing that impoverished debtors will be arrested and held by the City for days
or weeks unless and until they pay enough cash to the City.
When providing information to inmates, the City refers to the amount of cash
required for release as the inmate’s “bond,” even though the amount it set by reference to the
amount of outstanding debt. Moreover, the money is applied automatically toward old unpaid
debts and is set, reset, and modified without any process and without consideration of any of the
lawful considerations related to Missouri’s statutory bail system or consistent with the United
States Constitution. Nor is the amount set in relation to any particular pending charge for which
legal proceedings are imminent. Indeed, inmates routinely do not even have future court dates set
and are held indefinitely without being brought to court. If a person subsequently misses any
future payment, the City, without any legal process, confiscates any previous amounts paid by the
person to secure their release from jail and resets the person’s debts. The City also adds a “warrant”
fee for the person’s missed payment without any legal process.15 In this way, many impoverished
people end up paying thousands of dollars over a period of many years to the City based on a small
number of relatively inexpensive initial tickets.
At any moment, any person can end this cycle by paying the balance of her debt.
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to allow any inmate at any time
to pay the full amount of the debt owed and to be released immediately, terminating for good all
existing previously closed “cases” for which debt is still being collected.16
Similarly, at any time, either before an arrest or after an arrest, the policy and
practice of the City of Ferguson is to allow all arrest warrants to be removed and inmates to be
released immediately if they pay the entire amount of their outstanding balance with the City. It
is also the policy and practice of the City to allow individual warrants to be removed without
eliminating the entire debt if the person pays an amount arbitrarily set by City employees, usually
several hundred dollars in cash based on the total unpaid balance.
For example, the person is not arraigned on any new charge for failure to appear prior to the “warrant” fee being
added, and the person is not given a meaningful opportunity to present a defense to the elements of such a potential
charge. The money is simply added to the person’s debts.
The “cases” for which the City is collecting debts have, for the most part, been closed for years, with civil judgments
entered requiring the payment of fines and costs.
The City employs a materially different set of procedures for those people who
retain private counsel. It is and has been the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to remove
existing arrest warrants and schedule new court dates for those debtors who retain a private lawyer.
Unrepresented people are told that there is no way to clear their warrants unless they pay the City.
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to keep some
debtors in jail for indefinite periods without bringing them to court. The City has often kept
inmates unable to make monetary payments in its jail without bringing them to court for days or
ii. Debt-Collection Proceedings in the Ferguson Municipal Court
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to conduct court
sessions approximately three times per month.18 Inmates brought to the court from the jail are told
that they will remain in jail unless they make monetary payments even though it is the policy and
practice of the City of Ferguson not to provide them with an attorney and not to conduct any
meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay as required by the United States Constitution.19
Inmates are not advised of their relevant rights under federal or Missouri law,
including applicable constitutional rights and state-law defenses and procedures.
The City also follows a policy and practice of holding inmates in jail for days on behalf of other municipalities
until the other municipality decides whether it will pick them up or not.
Because the City holds court so infrequently, those arrested on new offenses or warrants who cannot afford the
amount of money set by the City have often languished in jail for more than a week before seeing a judicial officer.
Inmates arrested on new charges (as opposed to previously unpaid debts) are told that they will not be released from
custody prior to trial unless and until they make generically determined monetary payments. As attention on Ferguson
has grown in recent months, the City has begun negotiating with arrestees and often releasing inmates with new
charges for free after shorter periods of incarceration if they cannot come up with the money to be released
immediately. As always, arrestees who are not indigent and who can afford the scheduled monetary payment are
released immediately after booking.
Because no inquiry is made into ability to pay, no inquiry is likewise made into the reasons for non-payment or
alternatives to incarceration.
Those appearing in court from jail are told that they must pay a certain amount of
money or be kept in jail. They are, as a matter of policy and practice, told to make phone calls to
family members in an attempt to get family members to pay their debts.
Non-incarcerated people are told either to appear in court at future dates or told not
to appear in court but to make monetary payments on old debts at the police department. Both
groups are told, as a matter of City policy and practice, that failure to bring money to pay old debts
will result in their arrest. As with confined inmates, a person can end this debt collection process
at any time—whether a person has been told to appear in court or told to make payments at the
police department—by paying what she owes to the City in full. If a person is too poor to end this
process, her closed “case” can go on for years and years in perpetuity after a civil judgment
assessing financial penalties, with the City imposing additional fees and surcharges for missed
The City prosecutor and City judge do not conduct indigence or ability-to-pay
hearings. Regular observers of the City court have never once seen an indigence or ability to pay
hearing conducted in the past five years.
The City prosecutor and City judge conduct no meaningful individualized process
prior to ordering people to make particular monthly payments. Payment plans are set entirely
without any adversarial process and without any individualized inquiry into the circumstances of
a debtor. City jail officials ordering payments upon release from jail similarly follow no formal
adversarial process in determining the amount of required payments. Those jailed for unpaid debts
It is the policy and practice of the City of Ferguson to inform debtors that, if they or their families pay their debt in
full, they can be released from jail and have all proceedings terminated at any moment. At any time, the entire process
can be ended by a monetary payment. If a person can afford to pay, the person will never have another court date set
by the City of Ferguson. The termination of these cases is determined solely by the wealth of individuals.
from tickets and other offenses (e.g. for not making their ordered payments) are not appointed an
attorney, even though the City is represented by an experienced prosecutor.
In addition to the difficulty of mounting constitutional and statutory arguments and
defenses in the face of an experienced prosecutor, navigating the origin of the numerous fees and
surcharges imposed by Ferguson and determining whether they are even validly assessed by the
City in any particular case is a complicated inquiry. This inquiry involves the application of state
law and procedure; local law and practice; multiple court files, accounting documents, and receipts
over a period of years; and constitutional law to a person’s lengthy case history.
The vast majority of those jailed for violating the payment plan condition imposed
by the City court were not represented by an attorney on the underlying traffic or minor charge
because of the City’s policy and practice of not appointing counsel for the indigent.
The Plaintiffs and many other witnesses have observed numerous other
impoverished people jailed by the City for non-payment of debts without a meaningful inquiry
into their ability to pay, without the representation of counsel, and without the consideration of
whether imprisonment serves legitimate state interests in light of available alternatives as required
by federal and Missouri law. The Plaintiffs and other witnesses have observed numerous other
people and families who were told that they or their family member would be held in jail by the
City unless and until they brought forward large sums of money to pay off debts supposedly owed
for tickets and subsequent surcharges.
iii. The Deplorable Conditions in the Ferguson Jail
As described above, inmates jailed for non-payment have, as a matter of City policy
and practice, been kept in overcrowded cells with inmates strewn about the floors. The City has
deliberately and callously ignored basic principles of hygiene, sanitation, medical and mental
health care, and inmate safety.
Inmates are denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, and soap; they are kept in cells that
reek of visible excrement and surrounded by walls smeared with blood and mucus; they are kept
in the same clothes for days and weeks without access to laundry or clean undergarments; they
huddle in cold temperatures with a single thin blanket even as they beg guards for warm blankets;
they develop illnesses and infections in open wounds that spread to other inmates; they sleep next
to an open uncleansed toilet; they endure weeks without being allowed to use the moldy shower;
women are not given adequate hygiene products for menstruation; they have on occasion been
forced to sleep amidst refuse because of the lack of adequate trash removal; they are routinely
denied vital medical care and prescription medication, even when their families beg to be allowed
to bring medication to the jail; inmates with serious mental health issues are not provided mental
health treatment or prescription medication that they need; they are provided food so insufficient
and uniform that inmates lose significant amounts of weight and lack essential nutrients; they
suffer from dehydration because their only source of water is a foul apparatus connected to the top
of the toilet that produces warm water with an unpalatable stench; and they are deprived of books,
legal materials, exercise, television, internet, or natural light.
Inmates have been sexually abused and physically beaten by jail staff in the past
several years as a result of a culture of unaccountability and abuse resulting from a lack of adequate
training and supervision.
These abuses and deprivations are accompanied by other pervasive humiliations.
Jail guards routinely taunt impoverished people when they are unable to pay for their release,
telling them that all they have to do in order to be released is to pay money that they do not have.
Jail guards routinely laugh at the inmates and humiliate them with degrading epithets, many of
which focus on how bad the inmates look and smell after languishing in the Ferguson jail.
The totality of these conditions described by the Plaintiffs and by numerous
witnesses amounts to unlawful punishment. The conditions at the Ferguson jail are deliberately
designed to be as degrading and humiliating as possible in order to punish debtors for not paying
their debts and to discourage them from missing payments to the City. The purpose and effect is
to coerce debtors to borrow money or use money otherwise needed for the basic necessities of life
in order to pay the City to avoid being subjected to the dangerous and humiliating Ferguson jail.
The jail conditions created and perpetuated by the City of Ferguson would be
unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment even were convicted prisoners treated with such
callous disregard to basic health and safety. The City forces these conditions on pretrial detainees
and post-judgment debtors jailed long after monetary judgments and solely because of their
inability to make monetary payments and not pursuant to any criminal sentence.
The use of the Ferguson jail and its deplorable conditions in discrete spurts of
indefinite confinement dependent on incrementally and arbitrarily reduced release amounts or
eventual release for free after several days has the purpose and effect of punishing people rather
than achieving any other lawful goal.
iv. The City’s Flawed and Unlawful Warrant Process
It is and has been the policy and practice of the City to issue invalid arrest warrants
and to apply arbitrary and illegal policies for the issuance and recalling of warrants.
Among the policies and practices of the City of Ferguson are the following:
a. The City informs people that they can remove outstanding warrants simply by
paying a sum of money but does not offer a way for the indigent to remove
b. The City allows for the removal of existing warrants without paying the City
only if the person retains a lawyer.
c. The City issues arrest warrants for the failure to make a payment without
probable cause to believe that the person had the ability to make a payment.
d. When impoverished people appear in the courtroom and City payment window,
they are told by the judge, courtroom officers, City prosecutor, and City clerk
that they will be jailed if they do not bring specific sums of money to the City
on designated dates in the future.
e. The City issues arrest warrants for “failure to appear” when people do not pay
by certain designated dates even though the person did not fail to appear at any
court appearance. The City routinely gives inmates paperwork crossing out a
court date and telling them instead to make payments at the police department
or to drop money off at the night deposit slot.
f. The City issues arrest warrants for “failure to appear” at court dates for which
the person had not been given adequate notice. For example, for a hearing to
which the person had not been validly summoned or to a hearing whose date
the City has moved without ensuring actual notice has been given to the person.
The City does not adequately ensure actual notice of changes in court dates and
routinely issues arrest warrants even when it has no probable cause to believe
that the elements of a “failure to appear” charge have been met, such as that the
person did not intentionally fail to appear because the person was in the custody
of another jurisdiction or was in the hospital.
g. After arrest pursuant to a warrant, the City either does not bring the person to
court at all or delays presentment unnecessarily and for no legitimate purpose
for days or weeks.
The Cycle of Debt and Jailing in Other Municipalities
Like the other impoverished people stuck in this broken system, the Plaintiffs have
been overwhelmed by the combination of multiplying fines, fees, costs, and surcharges from many
different municipalities at once, as well as the cycle of repeated jailings and subsequent transfers
to several different jails during each jailing, lost jobs, increased fees, and the inability to renew
driver’s licenses because of unpaid tickets. After scraping together cash from family and friends
and borrowing money to pay Ferguson, the Plaintiffs and other Class members would simply be
jailed by another city.
The hopelessness of trying to navigate this system for years without financial
resources and without the assistance of a lawyer who understands the process—never knowing
when they left the house if they would be arrested and always confronted with the powerlessness
of being kept in jail indefinitely because of their poverty—fundamentally altered the lives of the
Plaintiffs and continues to tear at the core of the community.
The fear of having basic rights violated with no recourse is a daily fact of life for
the Plaintiffs and thousands of others. It is this despair that the Saint Louis County debtors’ prison
network cultivates that leads many impoverished people to avoid the system and some, sadly, to
take their own lives while languishing in a jail cell.21
Class Action Allegations
The Plaintiffs bring this action on behalf of themselves and all others similarly
situated, for the purpose of asserting the claims alleged in this Complaint on a common basis.
A class action is a superior means, and the only practicable means, by which
Plaintiffs and unknown Class members can challenge the City’s unlawful debt-collection scheme.
This action is brought and may properly be maintained as a Class action pursuant
to Rule 23(a)(1)-(4), Rule 23(b)(2), and Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
This action satisfies the numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy
requirements of those provisions.
Plaintiffs propose two Classes: a Declaratory and Injunctive Class and a Damages
Class. The Declaratory and Injunctive Class is defined as: All persons who currently owe or who
will incur debts to the City of Ferguson from fines, fees, costs, or surcharges arising from cases
prosecuted by the City of Ferguson.
The Damages Class is defined as: All persons who, from February 8, 2010, until
the present, were held in jail by the City because of their non-payment of a monetary sum required
At least four suicides and suicide attempts by people held because they were too poor to pay for their release have
occurred in local municipal jails just in the past five months.
by the City.
Numerosity. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(1)
Over the past five years, thousands of people have owed and currently owe the City
of Ferguson money from old traffic tickets and other minor municipal offenses. Pursuant to City
policy and practice, thousands of people who have indicated that they are too poor to pay their
debts in full have been placed on payment plans by the City. All of these people are currently
being threatened with arrest and jailing if they do not make the payments in the amount or
frequency purportedly required by the City.
The City has kept hundreds of people in its jail for non-payment in each of the past
five years. The City retains, and is required by law to retain, records of these instances.
The City followed and follows materially the same debt-collection policies,
practices, and procedures to accomplish the jailing of the Class members. For example, pursuant
to the City’s policy and practice, those kept in jail by the City for non-payment did not receive
meaningful inquiries into their ability to pay as required by federal and Missouri law. Pursuant to
City policy, no determinations of indigence or evaluations of alternatives to incarceration were
made, and the City provided none of the relevant state and federal protections for debtors. Nor
were those jailed by the City provided adequate counsel to represent them.
Those who still owe the City debt payments or who will incur such debts will be
subjected to the same ongoing policies and practices absent the relief sought in this Complaint.
Commonality. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(2).
The relief sought is common to all members of the Class, and common questions
of law and fact exist as to all members of the Class. The Plaintiffs seek relief concerning whether
the City’s policies, practices, and procedures violated their rights and relief mandating the City to
change its policies, practices, and procedures so that the Plaintiffs’ rights will be protected in the
Whether the City has a policy and practice of keeping people in its jail who owe money on
old judgments unless and until they can pay a monetary sum;
Whether the City has a policy and practice of incrementally lowering the amount required
to buy a debtor’s release from custody as the person sits in jail;
Whether the City has a policy and practice of failing to conduct meaningful inquiries into
the ability of a person to pay before keeping the person in jail for non-payment;
Whether the City provides notice to debtors that their ability to pay will be a relevant issue
at the proceedings at which they are jailed or kept in jail and whether the City makes
findings concerning ability to pay and alternatives to incarceration;
Whether the City provides adequate legal representation to those jailed for non-payment in
proceedings that result in their incarceration;
Whether the City jail conditions are and have been unsanitary, unsafe, and inhumane in the
ways described in this Complaint;
Whether City employees and agents have a policy and practice of threatening debtors and
families of debtors with incarceration for unpaid debts without informing them of their
Whether the City has a policy of issuing and executing warrants for the arrest of debtors
despite lacking probable cause that they have committed any offense and without any
notice or opportunity to be heard concerning their ability to pay or the validity of the debt.
Among the most important, but not the only, common questions of fact are:
Among the most important common question of law are:
Whether keeping people in jail solely because they cannot afford to make a monetary
payment is lawful;
Whether people are entitled to a meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay before being
jailed by the City for non-payment;
Whether people who cannot afford to pay the City are entitled to the consideration of
alternatives to incarceration before being jailed for non-payment;
Whether people are entitled to the appointment of and representation by a lawyer in
proceedings initiated and litigated by City prosecutors that result in their incarceration if
they cannot afford an attorney;
Whether the City can employ jail, threats of jail, onerous generic “payment dockets,” and
other harsh debt-collection measures (such as ordering payment of significant portions of
a person’s public assistance benefits) against debtors who cannot afford immediately to
pay the monetary judgment to the City in full;
Whether the City can arrest people based solely on their non-payment without any probable
cause that they have committed any willful conduct or other offense and without notice
and an opportunity to be heard concerning legal predicates for a valid detention, such as
their ability to pay and the validity of the debt;
Whether the jail conditions described in this Complaint violate federal law.
These common legal and factual questions arise from one central scheme and set
of policies and practices: the City’s enormously profitable traffic and ordinance debt collection
system. The City operates this scheme openly and in materially the same manner every day, and
all of the ancillary factual questions about how that scheme operates are common to all members
of the Class, as well as the resulting legal questions about whether that scheme is unlawful. The
material components of the scheme do not vary from Class member to Class member, and the
resolution of these legal and factual issues will determine whether all of the members of the class
are entitled to the constitutional relief that they seek.
Typicality. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(3).
The named Plaintiffs’ claims are typical of the claims of the members of the
Classes, and they have the same interests as all other members of the Classes that they represent.
Each of them suffered injuries from the failure of the City to comply with the basic constitutional
provisions detailed below. The answer to whether the City’s scheme of policies and practices is
unconstitutional will determine the claims of the named Plaintiffs and every other Class member.
If the named Plaintiffs succeed in their claims that the City’s policies and practices
concerning debt collection for fines, fees, costs, and surcharges violate the law in the ways alleged
in each claim of the Complaint, then that ruling will likewise benefit every other member of the
Injunctive and Damages Classes, as well as the Damages Subclasses.22
Adequacy. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(4).
The named Plaintiffs are adequate representatives of the Classes because they are
The named Plaintiffs representing the Declaratory and Injunctive Class are Keilee Fant, Roelif Carter, Allison
Nelson, Herbert Nelson, Jr., Alfred Morris, Anthony Kimble, Donyale Thomas, Shameika Morris, Daniel Jenkins,
Ronnie Tucker, and Tonya Deberry. The named Plaintiffs representing the Damages Class are: Keilee Fant, Roelif
Carter, Allison Nelson, Herbert Nelson, Jr., Alfred Morris, Anthony Kimble, Donyale Thomas, Shameika Morris,
Daniel Jenkins, Ronnie Tucker, and Tonya Deberry.
members of the Classes and because their interests coincide with, and are not antagonistic to, those
of the Classes. There are no known conflicts of interest among Class members, all of whom have
a similar interest in vindicating the constitutional rights to which they are entitled.
Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from Equal Justice Under Law,23 who have
experience in litigating complex civil rights matters in federal court and extensive knowledge of
both the details of the City’s scheme and the relevant constitutional and statutory law. Plaintiffs
are also represented by attorneys from ArchCity Defenders, who have extensive experience with
the functioning of the entire municipal court system in the City of Ferguson through their
representation of numerous impoverished people in the City of Ferguson.24 Plaintiffs are also
represented by the Saint Louis University School of Law,25 whose distinguished clinical professors
and dedicated students have devoted enormous time and resources to studying the functioning of
the municipal court system and the applicable federal and state law, as well as to representing
impoverished people affected by the illegalities permeating the City’s municipal scheme.
The efforts of Plaintiffs’ counsel have so far included extensive investigation over
a period of months, including numerous interviews with witnesses, City employees, City jail
Equal Justice Under Law is a non-profit civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C. The organization is
funded in part by the Harvard Law School Public Service Venture Fund.
Counsel from Equal Justice Under Law was recently lead counsel in a landmark federal civil rights class
action lawsuit against the City of Montgomery for engaging in similar debtors’ prison practices. In that case, the
United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a preliminary injunction condemning and
forbidding the City’s similar jailing of impoverished people with unpaid debts, and the case was successfully settled
after the City agreed to compensate the Plaintiffs and to the entry of an injunction reforming its entire municipal debtcollection regime.
ArchCity Defenders is a non-profit public interest law firm based in Saint Louis. It has represented the poor and
homeless in municipal court cases for the past five years and is an expert on the ways in which Ferguson’s illegal
practices and policies make and keep people poor. ArchCity Defenders also published an extensive report detailing
similar practices and policies in the cities of Bel-Ridge and Florissant. The report is available at
Saint Louis University School of Law Clinics have been involved in representing the poor and homeless in municipal
courts for many years and have extensive knowledge of and experience with the systemic constitutional violations
pervading the City’s scheme. Further, the Clinic and its professors have extensive experience in class action lawsuits.
inmates, families, attorneys practicing in the Ferguson Municipal Court, community members,
statewide experts in the functioning of Missouri municipal courts, and national experts in
constitutional law, debt collection, bankruptcy law, criminal law, and jails.
Counsel have also observed numerous courtroom hearings in the City of Ferguson
and in municipalities across the region in order to compile a detailed understanding of state law
and practices as they relate to federal constitutional requirements. Counsel have studied the way
that these systems function in other cities in order to investigate the wide array of options in
practice for municipalities.
As a result, counsel have devoted enormous time and resources to becoming
intimately familiar with the City’s scheme and with all of the relevant state and federal laws and
procedures that can and should govern it. Counsel has also developed relationships with many of
the individuals and families most victimized by the City’s practices.
The interests of the members of the Class will be fairly and adequately protected
by the Plaintiffs and their attorneys.
Class action status is appropriate because the City, through the policies, practices,
and procedures that make up its traffic and ordinance debt-collection scheme, has acted and refused
to act on grounds generally applicable to the Declaratory and Injunctive Class. Thus, a declaration
that people in the City cannot be held in jail solely because they cannot afford to make a monetary
payment will apply to each Class member. Similarly, a determination that Class members are
entitled, as a matter of federal law, to a meaningful inquiry into their ability to pay and an
evaluation of alternatives to incarceration before they are jailed by the City for non-payment will
apply to each Class member. The same applies to rulings on the other claims, including: that Class
members are entitled to representation by counsel at proceedings initiated and litigated by City
prosecutors in connection with which they are jailed; that the City cannot collect debts from Class
members in an onerous manner that violates and evades all of the relevant protections for other
judgment debtors; that the jail conditions to which members of the class are exposed are inhumane
and unconstitutional; and that the City cannot issue and execute arrest warrants for traffic debtors
without probable cause that they have committed an offense and without notice or a hearing prior
to the deprivation of their liberty.
Injunctive relief compelling the City to comply with these constitutional rights will
similarly protect each member of the Class from being again subjected to the City’s unlawful
policies and practices with respect to the debts that they still owe and protect those who will incur
such debts in the future from the same unconstitutional conduct. Therefore, declaratory and
injunctive relief with respect to the Class as a whole is appropriate.
Class treatment under Rule 23(b)(3) is also appropriate because the common
questions of law and fact overwhelmingly predominate. This case turns, for every Class member,
on what the City’s policies and practices were and on whether those policies were lawful.
The common questions of law and fact listed above are dispositive questions in the
case of every member of the Class. The question of liability can therefore be determined on a
class-wide basis. Class-wide treatment of liability is a far superior method of determining the
content and legality of the City’s policies and practices than individual suits by hundreds or
thousands of City residents.
The question of damages will also be driven by class-wide
determinations, such as the policies, practices, and conditions at the City jail. To the extent that
individual damages will vary, they will vary depending in large part on the amount of time that a
person was unlawfully jailed. Determining damages for individual Class members can thus
typically be handled in a ministerial fashion based on easily verifiable records of the length of
unlawful incarceration. If need be, individual hearings on Class-member specific damages based
on special circumstances can be held after Class-wide liability is determined—a method far more
efficient than the wholesale litigation of hundreds or thousands of individual lawsuits.
The Plaintiffs seek the following relief and hereby demand a jury trial in this cause
for all matters so appropriate.
Claims for Relief
Count One: Defendant City of Ferguson Violated the Plaintiffs’ Rights By Jailing
Them For Their Inability To Pay the City.
Plaintiffs incorporate by reference the allegations in paragraphs 1-233.
The Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses have long
prohibited imprisoning a person for the failure to pay money owed to the government if that person
is indigent and unable to pay. Defendant violated Plaintiffs’ rights by jailing Plaintiffs when they
could not afford to pay the debts allegedly owed from traffic and other minor offenses. Defendant
violated Plaintiffs’ rights by imprisoning them, and by threatening to imprison them, without
conducting any inquiry into their ability to pay and without considering alternatives to
imprisonment as required by the United States Constitution. At any moment, a wealthier person
in the Plaintiffs’ position could have paid a sum of cash and been released from jail. Defendant’s
policy and practice of keeping Plaintiffs in its jail unless and until they are able to pay arbitrarily
determined and constantly-shifting sums of money violates the Fourteenth Amendment.
Count Two: Defendant City of Ferguson Violated Plaintiffs’ Rights By Imprisoning
Them Without Appointing Adequate Counsel.
Plaintiffs incorporate by reference the allegations in paragraphs 1-235.
Defendant violated Plaintiffs’ right to the effective assistance of counsel under the
Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution by jailing Plaintiffs during
proceedings initiated by City prosecutors at which Plaintiffs did not have the benefit of counsel
and did not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waive counsel. The City’s policy of not
providing adequate counsel in proceedings in which indigent people are ordered to be imprisoned
in the City jail for non-payment, which are, in turn, based on payment plans arising from traffic
and other violations at which the person was also unrepresented, violates the Sixth and Fourteenth
Amendments to the United States Constitution.
Count Three: Defendant City of Ferguson’ Use of Indefinite and Arbitrary Detention
Violates Due Process
Plaintiffs incorporate by reference the allegations in paragraphs 1-237 above.
The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits Defendant from
jailing the Plaintiffs indefinitely and without any meaningful legal process through which they can
challenge their detention by keeping them confined in the Defendant’s jail unless or until they
could make arbitrarily determined cash payments.
Count Four: The Deplorable Conditions in the Ferguson Jail Violate Due Process and
Constitute Impermissible Punishment
Plaintiffs incorporate by reference the allegations in paragraphs 1-239 above.
The unsafe, unsanitary, inhumane, and dangerous conditions of confinement in the
Ferguson jail constitute impermissible punishment unrelated to serving any criminal judgment.
Even if imposed after valid conviction, the conditions would constitute cruel and unusual
treatment. The deplorable and excessively harsh conditions in the Defendant’s jail are unnecessary
to accomplish any legitimate government objective and shock the conscience of any reasonable
person concerned with human dignity and liberty.
Count Five: Defendant City of Ferguson’ Use of Jail and Threats of Jail To Collect
Debts Owed to the City Violates Equal Protection Because It Imposes Unduly Harsh and
Punitive Restrictions On Debtors Whose Creditor Is the Government Compared To Those
Who Owe Money to Private Creditors.
Plaintiffs incorporate by reference the allegations in paragraphs 1-241 above.
The United States Supreme Court has held that, when governments seek to recoup
costs of prosecution from indigent defendants, they may not take advantage of their position to
impose unduly harsh methods of collection solely because the debt is owed to the government and
not to a private creditor. Not only does the City place indigent people on generic and overly
onerous payment plans lasting years or decades when the cases of wealthier people would be
terminated, but by imposing imprisonment, repeated threats of imprisonment, indeterminate
“payment dockets” for many years, extra and invalid fees and surcharges, and other restrictions on
Plaintiffs, the City takes advantage of its control over the machinery of the City jail and police
systems to deny debtors the procedural and substantive statutory protections that every other
Missouri debtor may invoke against a private creditor. Many people like the Plaintiffs owing
money to the City of Ferguson on old judgments have to borrow money and go further in debt in
order to pay off the City of Ferguson because other non-government creditors are not permitted to
jail them for non-payment of debt. This coercive policy and practice constitutes invidious
discrimination and violates the fundamental principles of equal protection of the laws.
Count Six: Defendant City of Ferguson’s Policy and Practice of Issuing and Serving
Invalid Warrants, Including Those Solely Based on Nonpayment of Monetary Debt, Violates
the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Plaintiffs incorporate by reference the allegations in paragraphs 1-243 above.
The City’s policy and practice is to issue and serve arrest warrants against those
who have not paid their traffic debt. These warrants are sought, issued, and served without any
inquiry into the person’s ability to pay even when the City has prior knowledge that the person is
impoverished and unable to pay the debts and possesses other valid defenses. These warrants are
regularly sought, issued, and served without any finding of probable cause that the person has
committed the elements of any offense. The City chooses to pursue warrants instead of issuing
summons even when it has spoken to people on the phone or in person and has the opportunity to
notify them to appear in court. The City’s policy of allowing wealthy residents or residents who
can afford to hire an attorney to remove their warrants but refusing to clear warrants for indigent
people who cannot afford those options is unlawful. Moreover, the City’s policy and practice of
not presenting arrestees in court or unreasonably delaying presentment for days or weeks for no
legitimate reason is unlawful. These practices violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and
result in a deprivation of fundamental liberty without adequate due process.
Request for Relief
WHEREFORE, Plaintiffs request that this Court issue the following relief:
a. A declaratory judgment that Defendant violates Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment due
process and equal protection rights by imprisoning them because they cannot afford to pay
the City and by imprisoning them without conducting any meaningful inquiry into their
ability to pay or into alternatives to incarceration;
b. A declaratory judgment that Defendant violates Plaintiffs’ rights under the Sixth and
Fourteenth Amendments by imprisoning them without appointing adequate counsel at the
proceedings that led to their incarceration;
c. A declaratory judgment that Defendant violates Plaintiffs’ rights by holding them
indefinitely in jail independent of any formal legal process;
d. A declaratory judgment that Defendant violates Plaintiffs’ rights by subjecting them to
unconstitutional jail conditions;
e. A declaratory judgment that Defendant violates Plaintiffs’ equal protection rights by
imposing harsh debt collection measures not imposed on debtors whose creditors are
f. A declaratory judgment that Defendant violates Plaintiffs’ Fourth and Fourteenth
Amendment rights by issuing and serving arrest warrants without probable cause to believe
that the elements of an offense had been committed, with unreasonable delay prior to
presentment, and without providing pre-deprivation of liberty process where such process
is easily available to the City;
g. An order and judgment permanently enjoining Defendant from enforcing the abovedescribed unconstitutional policies and practices against Plaintiffs;
h. A judgment compensating the Plaintiffs for the damages that they suffered as a result of
the City’s unconstitutional and unlawful conduct;
i. An order and judgment granting reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 1988 and any other relief this Court deems just and proper.
_/s/ Alec Karakatsanis_______________
Alec Karakatsanis (E.D.Mo. Bar No. 999294DC)
Equal Justice Under Law
916 G Street, NW Suite 701
Washington, DC 20001
_/s/ Thomas B. Harvey__________________
Thomas B. Harvey (MBE #61734)
_/s/ Michael-John Voss________________
Michael-John Voss (MBE #61742)
812 N. Collins Alley
Saint Louis, MO 63102
_/s/ John J. Ammann___________________
John J. Ammann (MBE #34308)
_/s/ Stephen Hanlon________________
Stephen Hanlon (MBE #19340)
_/s/ Brendan Roediger________________
Brendan Roediger (E.D.Mo. Bar No. IL6287213)
Saint Louis University School of Law
100 N. Tucker Blvd.
Saint Louis, MO 63101-1930
Attorneys for Plaintiffs
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