Ferguson judge withdraws all arrest warrants before 2015

Story highlights

  • A Ferguson judge orders all arrest warrants from before December 31, 2014, to be withdrawn
  • Defendants will be given new court dates and alternative penalty options, the judge rules
  • An activist calls the judge's moves "a very big win" and "olive branch" to protesters

(CNN)The municipal court judge in Ferguson, Missouri, on Monday announced sweeping changes to the city's court system, including an order to withdraw all arrest warrants issued in that city before December 31, 2014.

Municipal Court Judge Donald McCullin, who was appointed in June, also changed the conditions for pretrial release. According to a press release put out by Ferguson, all defendants will be given new court dates with alternative penalties like payment plans or community service.
Those caught for minor traffic violations should be less likely to end up behind bars because of McCullin. Under the new policy, they won't be arrested but instead will be released on their own recognizance and given another court date.
    These moves come after a year of often emotional protests and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department after racial tensions exploded over the August 2014 shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson, who is white.
    A grand jury declined to charge Wilson in that case, determining that the shooting was justified. A Justice Department investigation further concluded the shooting did not violate Brown's civil rights.
    Those decisions did little to quell anger on the St. Louis suburb's streets tied to that incident and others over the years in which some felt police unfairly singled out African-Americans. A separate Justice Department report found many such examples. The report was soon followed by the resignation of Ferguson's then-embattled police Chief Thomas Jackson.
    One woman active in the protest movement said she thinks Monday's actions by McCullin show the demonstrations made a difference.
    "As an activist you are going to stay mad because you are not going to always get all that you want," said Patricia Bynes, the Ferguson Township Democratic committeewoman.
    "But because of the pushing and the pressure that protesters put on Ferguson, I am considering it a win and a very big win. It's an olive branch."

    The pressure to change

    In March, the U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation found that Ferguson police and the city's municipal court engaged in a "pattern and practice" of discrimination against African-Americans.
    For example, in 88% of the cases in which the Ferguson police reported using force, it was against African-Americans. Also, between 2012 and 2014, black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during traffic stops, but 26% less likely to be found in possession of contraband.
    Now because of McCullin's move, warrants -- many of which are from traffic tickets and fines people couldn't pay, as well as failure to appear in court -- have been wiped clean.
    The court will revisit those cases, with new warrants issued only if a defendant fails to show up in court later, the city explained. And all suspensions of driver's licenses are now null and void.
    Ferguson also says the changes go above and beyond a Missouri state bill passed this year to limit the percentage of revenue that cities can bring in from traffic fines and fees.
    "These changes should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court, alleviating fears of the consequences of appearing in court and giving many residents a fresh start," McCullin said in a statement.
    But Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit legal aid group that has sued Ferguson over its ticketing practices, doesn't think the judge went far enough.
    "There are real questions about the legitimacy of the stops in the first place brought up by the DOJ and Arch City Defenders as well," Arch City Executive Director Thomas Harvey said.
    "If they want to do something in the interest of community healing they should just get rid of those cases. Blank slate. Start over. And move on."
    Harvey also pointed out that McCullin has to retire in six months because of state-mandated age limits for judges. The advocacy group leader worries that -- because the order is voluntary and not part of a decree that would be overseen by a higher court -- there is no guarantee the city will comply.
    "You're asking the community to trust you after years of creating distrust," Harvey said.

    Ferguson still pumping out arrest warrants

    The ticketing and arrest warrant issue didn't necessarily go away with the Justice Department report's release or the new order. An exclusive CNNMoney analysis earlier this month found the city was still pumping out thousands of new arrest warrants and jailing people over minor offenses.
    By that point in 2015, the city had already issued more than 2,300 new arrest warrants for the year and thousands of older warrants continued to haunt people -- even as neighboring municipalities are wiping out old tickets or warrants entirely.
    Brendan Roediger, a Saint Louis University law professor and attorney who has represented some defending themselves against the tickets and warrants, called the new moves a good start but not the endgame many want and deserve.
    "It's real and it's important," Roediger said. "They deserve to be given credit for it. I applaud Judge McCullin. It's meaningful. It's significant.
    "But ultimately, it is not the solution. (City officials) may do some good things out of pressure, but without a system that creates full-time professional courts, there isn't a system that is sustainable and fair across the board."
    Ferguson's Municipal Court is one of 83 part-time courts across St. Louis County. Too many of those courts, Roediger said, have engaged in similar practices that have disproportionately and unfairly affected the poor and people of color.
    "The combination of racial profiling and revenue-based policing creates massive animosity between people in the community and police. It does not increase public safety. "