Debtor’s Prison Case Makes Waves at 8th Circuit

ST. LOUIS (CN) – The city of Ferguson, Missouri, fought at the Eighth Circuit on Friday to toss claims that it runs a debtor’s prison for people too poor to pay traffic tickets.

Keilee Fant and 10 other named plaintiffs brought the federal class action here back in 2015, claiming that Ferguson had them jailed on minor offenses until 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.

Six months earlier, the shooting death of Michael Brown by a former Ferguson police officer sparked months of often violent protests, thrusting the issues of police brutality and racism into the national conversation.

After a federal judge rejected two attempts by Ferguson to dismiss Fant’s case, the city is vying now for an Eighth Circuit reversal.

Arguing for the city Thursday morning, Brinker & Doyen attorney John Reeves emphasized that the relief being sought implicates arrest warrants and bonds, which are beyond the city’s scope.

Rather than claiming that Ferguson has sovereign immunity, the city’s case hinges on proving that its municipal court does. Reeves said that, since the allegations involve the municipal court, the case against the city should be dismissed.

“The municipal court cannot be joined because it has sovereign immunity,” Reeves said, “and if they cannot be joined then the case needs to be dismissed.”

Ferguson has based its motion to dismiss on Rule 19, which holds in part that a person subject to service of process and whose joinder will not deprive the court of subject-matter jurisdiction must be joined as a party if, in that person’s absence, the court cannot accord complete relief among existing parties.

Arguing for the class meanwhile, Alice Tsier of White & Case told the Eighth Circuit that Ferguson’s municipal court acts at the city’s direction.

“Here we’re not going after the chief of police for his conduct or trying to sue a judge because those were just individuals executing the policies of the city,” Tsier said. “We’re going straight to the city and trying to hold the city accountable and it can’t hide behind it municipal court and use that as a shield for its actions.”

Fant and her co-plaintiffs say they languished in deplorable conditions inside the jails, forced to wear the same clothes for days and weeks. Their complaint described overcrowded facilities, insufficient food, walls smeared with mucus and blood, and inadequate medical care.

“We’re suing the city for what the city did or chose not to do,” Tsier told the court.

U.S. Circuit Judges Steven M. Colloton, Raymond W. Gruender and L. Steven Grasz heard the arguments.

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