Gavel Gamut
By Jim Redwine
(Week of 9 March 2015)


The United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued its Investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department and Municipal Court on March 04, 2015. The investigation was opened September 02, 2014, less than one month after the police shooting of eighteen year old Michael Brown.
Twenty-two year old John Crawford was shot by police in a Wal-Mart in Dayton, Ohio on August 05, 2014. He was carrying a toy assault rifle.
Twelve year old Tamir Rice was shot by police November 22, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. Rice had an air pistol.
Eric Garner died from a police chokehold on the streets of New York City July 17, 2014.
Each victim was an African American.
According to an FBI report, between 2010 and 2012, police were 21 times more likely to shoot and kill African American teenagers than Caucasian teens. The FBI report asserts 13% of our population is Black, 17% is Hispanic and 63% is White. Twelve percent of the police shooting death victims were Hispanic, 31% were Black and 52% were White.
These shooting incidents, particularly the death of Michael Brown, were the catalyst for the most recent Civil Rights investigation. The legal foundation and authority for the Justice Department’s intervention in Ferguson, Missouri was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
A minority report might have looked to that ubiquitous legal justification for virtually every contemporary infringement of Civil Rights, the so-called USA PATRIOT Act. USA PATRIOT Act is actually one of the all-time most imaginative, and misleading, acronyms: The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. Please excuse the oblique turn of thought. Perhaps sometime we can revisit this proof that Congress should not trade knee-jerk legislation for in-depth analysis. Anyway, back to the Ferguson report.
Gentle Reader, there is so much thought and information in the DOJ’s 102 page Ferguson Report I predict at least one thousand PhD theses will result. I hope that will not be the Report’s only legacy. If you have the time, I respectfully suggest you download the report and read it at your leisure. Otherwise you will have to rely on either television’s nattering nabobs or me.
Since for now you are into option three, let me refer you to that area of the report most concerning to me. No, not the statistical racism, but the equally insidious practice of abusing citizens with judicial proceedings as a substitute for raising taxes. Let me quote directly from the report and cite one specific case:
“Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than public safety needs.
“Ferguson has allowed its focus on revenue generation to fundamentally compromise the role of Ferguson’s municipal court. The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests.
“We spoke, for example, with an African-American woman who has a still-pending case stemming from 2007, when, on a single occasion, she parked her car illegally. She received two citations and a $151 fine, plus fees. The woman, who experienced financial difficulties and periods of homelessness over several years, was charged with seven Failure to Appear offenses for missing court dates or fine payments on her parking tickets between 2007 and 2010. For each Failure to Appear, the court issued an arrest warrant and imposed new fines and fees. From 2007 to 2014, the woman was arrested twice, spent six days in jail, and paid $550 to the court for the events stemming from this single instance of illegal parking. Court records show that she twice attempted to make partial payments of $25 and $50, but the court returned those payments, refusing to accept anything less than payment in full. One of those payments was later accepted, but only after the court’s letter rejecting payment by money order was returned as undeliverable. This woman is now making regular payments on the fine. As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.”

Perhaps each of us can relate to this experience in dealing with speed traps and abusive courts. As for me, I am reminded of the bewildering experiences of Franz Kafka’s Joseph K in The Trial, or Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.
I just hope citizens in my court do not have similar thoughts.