Paying the Piper


Montgomery, Alabama–Anyone who wishes to enter Municipal Court in Alabama's capital city must first be sanctioned by a court officer who scans your belongings, then polices your attire.

“Tuck in your shirt and I'll be glad to let you in,” he says.

It is a small point of order amid what criminologist Marvin Zalman describes as America's “sloppy” criminal justice process.

The best place to observe messy justice may be in courts of lowest jurisdiction: the municipal and county courts that deal with felony arraignments, misdemeanors and the more than 50 million traffic violations issued each year.

On one recent morning, about 100 people with tucked shirts lined the hardwood benches before Judge Milton Westry, a bald black man who peered through wire-rimmed glasses. His gaze was divided between the defendants who stood briefly before him and a computer monitor just to his left that gave him case histories of the accused.

The vast majority of accused lawbreakers that day were African Americans. About 55 percent of Montgomery's population of 205,000 is black. But nine out of 10 people in court that morning were African Americans.

Many wore the uniforms of the proletariat—polo shirts with fast-food insignias, mechanics' blues or the pastel scrubs of hospital orderlies. Most were accused of violating traffic laws. One man had been charged with domestic violence, a woman with petty theft.

'Turn Off Your Phones'

Judge Westry, appointed to the bench in 2012, was unfailingly polite, in the southern manner that survives in Montgomery. His work was supported by a team of clerks who peered at their own computer screens as a bailiff summoned accused lawbreakers from the benches.

The process is not exactly chaotic. It's more like a busy restaurant kitchen during the lunch rush. Everyone has a job to do, and for the most part they seem to do it.

Most of the men and women waited patiently for their turn before Westry. A few grumbled about missing work. Some sneaked furtive peeks at cell phones, incurring the wrath of the eagle-eyed court officer.

“I asked you nice to turn off your phones,” he barked. “Don't push me.”

Many of those in court were repeat customers. About half the cases that morning involved a twist that made the violation more complicated and potentially costly. For example, a number of the accused violators had outstanding fines from previous traffic infractions.

One man had been stopped by police because a tail light on his car wasn't working. It turned out that his registration and insurance had lapsed, his driver's license was suspended, and he wasn't wearing a seatbelt.

The add-ons multiplied his fine.

The subject of money pervades traffic courts everywhere.

Some view driving infractions as the template “crimes of poverty” that target blacks and the poor. Traffic-court targeting of blacks was a subject of citizens' complaints in Ferguson, Mo., last August during protests touched off by the police shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown.

In December 2014, the Missouri attorney general sued 13 St. Louis suburbs for predatory traffic ticketing, in violation of a state law that limits fines and fees from those infractions.

Court Costs, Collection Fees

Money is central to the mission of these lower courts.

“Accounting for fines, fees and restitution is a core operational activity of all courts with misdemeanor jurisdiction,” according to a best-practices guide by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). The guide noted that most of the money handled by criminal courts comes from traffic and misdemeanor cases.

In Montgomery, Municipal Court took in about $14 million in fines and forfeitures in 2013.

Judge Westry works from a carefully delineated schedule of fines and fees. Court costs of $155 are added to any fine. For example, the mandated fine is $40 plus court costs—$195 total—for someone convicted of driving 25 mph over the posted speed limit. (The fine increases to $347 for those who fail to pay and become subject of an arrest warrant.)

Until the summer of 2014, Judicial Correction Services, a private firm hired to help with collections, was tacking on a $40 monthly fee to each violator whose balance was not paid in full. Some of those in arrears were being jailed for contempt of court before the Southern Poverty Law Center successfully challenged the system, which it characterized as a debtors' prison.

The firm's contract was not renewed.

In general, fees are higher than the national norm in Montgomery, but fines are lower. Court costs are $62.50 in St. Louis County Municipal Court, less than half of Montgomery's. In Albuquerque, the speeding ticket that costs $195 in Montgomery would cost $335, including courts costs of $65. The same ticket would cost $171 in Detroit, $294 in Miami, and $355 in Boston.

Issues of personal finance were on the agenda in each conversation that Judge Westry had with accused violators in Montgomery.

Typical was his exchange with a young woman wearing jeans and a sequined pink shirt. She had pleaded guilty to a series of violations that began when she rolled through a red light.

Before he announced the fine, Westry asked, “Are you working, ma'am?”

She nodded.

“How much money do you have with you today that you can pay?”

“Nothing today,” she said. “I get my check on Friday.”

“How much can you pay on Friday?”

She said she could afford to pay $25 a week. As he did with many of the violators that day, Westry instructed the clerks to set up a payment schedule with a final deadline three months hence.

The 90-day deadline is not a coincidence. The NCSC best-practices protocols suggest that 75 percent of traffic cases should be closed within 30 days and 98 percent within 90 days.

Like lower courts in most big cities, Montgomery Municipal Court functions in part as a collection agency and installment loan service. Most violators are not able to pay their fines in full on the day of their court appearance, so they kick the debt down the road. Those who fail to pay can be subjected to warrants, further fines and even jail time.

Nationally, fewer than two-thirds of those fined manage to pay their debts on time. (The NCSC suggests a goal of just 60 percent of fines paid “prior to being sent to collection agency.”)

Judge Westry showed frustration just once that morning, with a woman who had failed to pay an outstanding fine, then ignored a new court date scheduled so she could set up an alternative payment plan. She was arrested on a contempt-of-court warrant.

“When you don't show up, it screws the whole system up,” Westry told her. “You've got to treat this a lot more seriously.”

With clear reluctance, he ordered her locked up for a week.

If anyone in court that day felt wrongfully accused, he or she didn't mention it to Judge Westry. Most had an explanation for their predicament—a borrowed car, unforeseen financial distress, a shady boyfriend, a sick child—but none publicly claimed to have been wronged by a cop or prosecutor. And none had legal representation.

In Alabama, there is no statewide system of criminal defense for the indigent, which has been considered as a politically expedient position. Only a handful of court jurisdictions have official public defender's offices. Private attorneys are appointed on a contract basis, and that system is expensive and ineffective, by wide acclimation.

But as the costs of private indigent defense increased (up 25 percent to $75 million in fiscal 2013 over the previous year) in a state operating with a $700 million budget deficit, Alabama politicians had a change of heart. The legislature authorized a few new public defender's offices to save money. The Montgomery County operation, with 14 attorneys, opened in January, handling both felony cases and misdemeanors that might lead to jail time.

Blacks Are 'Over-Observed'

The day after my visit to court, I met with Charles Price, presiding judge of Alabama's 15th judicial circuit, in his chambers a mile away at the Phelps-Price Justice Center, named in his honor. Price is an African American who grew up in Montgomery. (He retired on January 16 after 31 years on the bench.)

I asked his opinion about the scope of bad prosecutions in the region.

“Are there wrongful convictions in the Deep South? No question about it,” he says. “I think it's a small percentage, maybe a little more in big cities. But any wrongful conviction is a disgrace, whether it's for murder or shoplifting.”

African Americans and Hispanics comprise about 60 percent of the prison population in the U.S. Similarly, nearly six of every 10 exonerees listed in the National Registry of Exonerations are black or Latino.

Judge Price says he was not surprised that African Americans make up the vast majority of clients in his hometown's Municipal Court. He saw it for years in his court, as well.

He cites the “over-observation” of blacks by police in many U.S. cities, including Montgomery.

“Let me explain it like this,” Price says. “Let's say you're making a turn without signaling on Madison Street in downtown Montgomery at 11 o'clock at night. Now there's really no reason for police to stop you. It's discretionary. If you're white, they probably won't stop you. If you're black, they probably will. And then you'll have weed in the car, and one thing leads to another.

“That's how it is for blacks,” he continues. “We might not break laws any more than whites, but we get caught more often because we are over-observed by law enforcement.”

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and co-editor of Crime & Justice News. The Crime Report gratefully acknowledges the support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism for this project.

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