Home / General / The predatory, broken municipal governments of St. Louis County

The predatory, broken municipal governments of St. Louis County


Balko is doing some extraordinary and important work here:

“She was crying as I explained the situation to her,” Voss says. “So then started to cry as I explained it her. One of the really frustrating things about what’s happening here is that this system is breaking good people. These are people just trying to get by, just trying to take care of their families.” Voss’s eyes well up as he talks about Bolden. This isn’t just an attorney defending his client. It’s a guy who is concerned about what’s happening to another human being. Bolden is a single black woman with four kids. She has several tattoos. It’s easy to see how cops might target her, or court officials might dismiss her. But Voss points out that she had already earned an associate’s degree in medical assistance. And while dealing with all of the arrests and the harassment, she earned another in paralegal studies.

The Foristell warrant stemmed from a speeding ticket in 2011. As mentioned before, Bolden didn’t show up in court because she didn’t have the money to pay it and feared they’d put her jail. It’s a common and unfortunate misconception among St. Louis County residents, especially those who don’t have an attorney to tell them otherwise. A town can’t put you in jail for lacking the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed not appearing in court to tell the judge you can’t pay — and fined again for not showing up. After twice failing to appear for the Foristell ticket, Bolden showed up, was able to get the warrant removed and set up a payment plan with the court. But she says that a few months later, she was a couple days late with her payment. She says she called to notify the clerk, who told her not to worry. Instead, the town hit her with another warrant — the same warrant for which she was jailed in March.

Bolden’s bond was set at $1,700. No one she knew had that kind of money. Bolden broke down; she cried, she screamed, and she swore. She was given a psychological evaluation, and then put on suicide watch. She finds that memory particularly humiliating. Bolden would remain in jail for two weeks, until Foristell’s next municipal court session. She wouldn’t let her children come visit her. “I didn’t want them to see me like that,” she says. “I didn’t want them to think it was normal, that it was okay for one of us to be in jail. I missed them so much. But I wasn’t going to let them see me like that.”

While in jail, she missed a job interview. She fell behind in her paralegal studies. When she finally got her day in court, she was told to change out of her jail jumpsuit into the same clothes she had worn for three days straight, and that had been sitting in a bag for the previous two weeks. She was brought into the courtroom to face the judge, handcuffed, in dirty clothes that had been marinated in her own filth. “I was funky, I was sad, and I was mad,” she says. “I smelled bad. I was handcuffed. I missed my kids. I didn’t feel like a person anymore.”

It’s long, but read the whole thing. I confess I was actually surprised when the “three outstanding warrants per household” in Ferguson fact first came to light; it’s now clear in St. Louis County, this is par for the course, and there are far worse examples–the extremely misleadingly named “Country Club Hills” has 26 outstanding warrants per resident. In a long piece filled with rage-inducing anecdotes, one stood out for me:

But perhaps the most gaping divide between having and not having an attorney is that many people think that if they can’t pay their fines, they’ll be arrested and jailed the moment they show up in court. So they don’t show up. In truth, you can’t be jailed if you don’t have the money to pay a fine. But you can be jailed for not showing up in court to answer a charge. So under the mistaken belief that showing up in court broke will land them in jail, people chose not to show up . . . which then lands them in jail.

“That’s probably the single biggest misunderstanding out there,” says Vatterott, the former municipal judge. “We have to do a better job of informing people. I think it should say on the notice that even if you have no money, you need to show up, and it should be made clear that you won’t be sent to jail. But when I bring that up, the prosecutors don’t like it. The arrest warrants bring more fines and make the towns more money.”

In the short run, a democratic revival is clearly and badly needed, and one simply has to hope that perhaps this moment of sunshine on these governments will produce something of that sort. One possible goal to organize around:

Just last week, the ArchCity Defenders petitioned Ferguson Mayor James Knowles to grant a mass clemency for the town’s 40,000+ outstanding warrants for traffic and other nonviolent offenses. That isn’t a structural change so much as a plea for a sign of goodwill. And it’s far from certain it will happen. Vatterott says he’s also organizing talks to push for reforms on other points of agreement, like a uniform set of rules for the courts, making notices easier to understand, and making sure defendants know that they can’t be jailed for lacking the funds to pay a fine.

I’d love to see outsiders run for office in these communities with such a mass clemency as  a central campaign promise. Of course, the municipal budgets would take a huge hit, and given how tiny and hollowed out the tax bases of these towns are, there aren’t many clear options to replace the lost funds. Which leads to another obvious conclusion:

“There are too many towns,” says Vatterott. There are too many towns, and not enough taxpayers to sustain them. How to fix that problem is another matter. There has long been a movement in St. Louis to merge the county with the city. That movement has picked up steam recent years as advocacy groups like Better Together have pushed proposals to merge a number of public services. But real change would require a good portion of these towns to merge with other towns, or to dissolve themselves entirely. That would require the town councils or boards of aldermen to vote themselves out of a job.


“You have these fiefdoms across the county where a small percentage of people hold power over a small bit of territory,” Kirkland says. “They aren’t going to let go of that easily.” Some towns have begun to share police services, or to contract police services out to St. Louis County. That at least means there are fewer cops per resident to hand out fines. But the cops and courts are still geared more toward generating revenue than promoting public safety.

Here in Dayton, it’s hard to imagine city-county consolidation, given the present political dynamics (racial and otherwise). But it does manage to happen, and happen in places I would imagine it would be impossible, such as Louisville. It’s obviously not sufficient to fix this nightmare, but I wonder if it might not be necessary.


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  • Aimai

    That was the most extraordinar article I will read this year. He deserves a prize. And, actually, the WaPo deserves some respect for publishing it. The article pulled no punches. The story of the guy who owns his own car shop and who is hasselled and arrested and insulted from morning to night is also eye opening. Its literally impossible to imagine the kind of courage it takes to get up every day and keep working under the conditions where the police of every tiny town you pass through–and your own–make it their business to attack and arrest you.

    • Balko has always done tremendous work on police abuses. I can’t read him on a regular basis because it just gets too depressing. It amazes me that he’s managed to spend so long looking into the abyss and documenting what he sees.

      • Rob in CT

        +1, on both counts. Balko’s been doing great work for years, and I can’t read him for long before I start getting either depressed or furious (granted, some would say that fury is the desired response, but I disagree). I long ago decided that our law enforcement/criminal justice system is FUBAR and needs a serious overhaul. I’ll vote for people who promise to do it… I might even hold my nose and do so for someone who also likes to yammer on about tax cuts.

        • Redwood Rhiadra

          The guys who yammer on about tax cuts usually want to make police departments even more abusive and racist.

      • Col Bat Guano

        I had a tough enough time getting through this article without spiking my blood pressure to unhealthy levels. I can’t imagine reading a series of these.

    • Malaclypse

      the police of every tiny town you pass through–and your own–make it their business to attack and arrest you.

      And the knowledge that it is indeed a business must be especially galling.

      Back in college, all student housing – both dorms and off-campus housing – were in the south-east part of town, and there was nobody non-college-related in that part of town. And I remember realizing that the other three-quarters of the town did not have byzantine parking regulations. And discovering that nearly a third of the town’s revenue came from parking violations. And I remember how pissed off I was when I figured this out.

      And this is so much unimaginably worse. Predatory government at its worst.

    • howard

      i agree: a truly extraordinary account.

      i like to think i have some understanding of the constraints low-income people face in this country, but then along comes an article like this to reveal to me just how privileged my existence is, that i have never even been aware that this kind of abuse is so ingrained into governmental practice.

      • djw

        Ditto. It’s humbling.

        • Russell Arben Fox


          • Bruce B.

            Yes indeed. It’s humbling to have to keep saying “I had no idea” and revise a whole bunch of one’s assessment of what’s going on and what should be done about it. Beats denial, though.

        • NewishLawyer


      • Rob in CT

        It’s eye-opening, but for me this fits fairly well into the “it’s expensive to be poor” idea. I accepted that a while ago, so for whatever reason this, while awful, doesn’t make me stop and say “holy shit! I had no idea!” It’s a particularly egregious example, because it’s clearly predatory. I’d lump it in with things like payday loans: abuse of poor and/or ignorant people because they’re easy to push around. It’s disgusting (in a way that, for instance, “don’t have the money to buy in bulk so you pay more for groceries” isn’t).

        I wonder… is there a way to look up somewhere what % of a given government’s (local, state, whatever) revenues are from fees rather than taxes?

        • Malaclypse

          I know googling “Boston Budget” got me to the Boston budget, where I found that revenues were 68% local property, 15% state aid, and the rest “other local.” Most of “other local” is meals/hotel/excise, but some is indeed fines, mainly parking. Looks like fines were 2% of revenue.

      • brugroffil

        Scalzi’s “Being Poor” post is always good for highlighting how expensive it is to be poor.


  • Gregor Sansa

    This is feudalism.

    I’ve seen it operating in Guatemala and in Chiapas. I’m aware that it goes on with migrant laborers in the US. But I never thought it actually held chunks of territory in this country.

    • Avattoir

      Those chunks aren’t few in number and their increase is preordained by our current politics. It’s hopeless: the county won’t take steps and the state won’t and the feds both can’t and won’t. That leads to giving up or fighting back. Giving up here is indistinguishable from ‘working within the system’, which, I should think, is what’s been serving the interests of the Republican party in particular. That leaves only one route for hope in ‘fighting back’ to change the situation: to go outside the system. That means the ‘other’ revolution of the last quarter of the 18th century, the one that wasn’t wrongly so named.

      • Malaclypse

        That leaves only one route for hope in ‘fighting back’ to change the situation: to go outside the system.

        Except this doesn’t square with the absolute outrage at people doing voter registration right now in Greater St. Louis.

    • ScottK

      I’d call it modern-day tax farming. Well-off people don’t want to pay, so they find a way to squeeze a few more bucks out of the poor

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        cedar rapids iowa has made over $3 mil in the last *year* off their automated traffic camera/fining system- the minimum charge is $75, and they’ve issued 100,000 tickets. the private company that installs and maintains the cameras took in $2 mil

        the city and the company are being sued now- for various reasons including the improper placement of cameras, that the state dept of transportation *sold* a database that excludes state-owned and quite a few private vehicles and that no out-of-state cars (not the drivers, note) are fined


        • Mike G

          no out-of-state cars

          Traffic cameras often fall into a legal gray area that renders them unenforceable for residents of other states. I know someone here in California who worked out that he could disregard a photo-radar ticket from Arizona due to the program’s dubious legal status in AZ. He ignored the ticket and nothing ever happened.

  • So much for local control being more democratic and liberty-protecting and all that bullshit. The choice ends up being between centralized democracy and decentralized kleptocracy.

    • David Hunt

      One of the few insightful and memorable things that Dennis Miller ever said was that “a local politician is just a politician whose darkest secret precludes them from seeking higher office.”

      • JMP

        Miller wasn’t always the nut he is today; or maybe he just seemed more reasonable back on Weekend Update because the head writer was the current junior Senator from Minnesota.

    • To the people screaming about small government and states rights, this is how the system is supposed to work.

      • brugroffil

        If it’s so bad, they can just vote with their feet!!!

        • Right? And it would have to be with their feet. They either can’t afford cars because they’re being skinned by the cops or the cops have impounded their cars for ginned up infractions.

    • Jerry Vinokurov

      Yeah, it’s kind of ironic that this is all being written by a libertarian like Balko, because it really shows the lie of local control being more responsive to people. The historical record shows that, while it’s far, far, far from perfect, the federal government has almost always been a far more sure guarantor of basic civil rights than local jurisdictions.

  • MikeJake

    I’ve mentioned it before, but Ohio had to pass a law to dissolve mayor’s courts in villages of less than 200 people because the police of these pointless little burghs existed solely to engage in banditry on the interstates and thoroughfares.

    • postmodulator

      That understates it, if anything — you’re thinking of New Rome, right? In that case it wasn’t even banditry in the sense of “funding the local government;” the four or five people in the “local government” just took the money and bought themselves nice things.

      • MikeJake

        New Rome was taken care of in 2004. I was thinking more of Linndale, among others.

        • Turkle

          I used to live in Ohio, and Linndale was notorious for that sort of behavior. Everyone knew to drive carefully through that particular few hundred feet of highway!

          • postmodulator

            Were Boston Heights and Mantua mayor’s courts situations? Boston Heights, in particular, is still a classic speed trap (speed limit drops 10 mph on freeway at city limits for no reason, cop sits just beyond speed limit sign).

  • Aunt Snow

    Not-so-funny story – A young man of my acquaintance just went off to start a PhD program at UC Berkeley. He had been awarded a full ride, had just received a check for his first semester.

    Earlier that year he’d bought a used car from a dealer, and several months later, when the license plates he was waiting for hadn’t arrived in the mail yet, he was pulled over in Beverly Hills and cited for expired plates. Turns out the dealer had screwed up – he worked it out with them and the state, and then went to the LA County sheriff’s office and squared everything up with them. They gave him documentation that he was OK, he shoved it in his glove box and went about his life.

    Two days before driving up to Berkeley, he opened the mail and there was a warrant for his arrest. Turns out, the piece of paper he shoved in the glove box was supposed to have been delivered to the Court Clerk at Beverly Hills, penalty for failure being a warrant. Fine set at $899, to be paid within in ten days or go to jail.

    This young man was from an upper middle class family, never had been in trouble, was smart (except for being dumb enough not to read the document carefully, where it plainly noted what he should have done.). Because he just happened to have a chunk of money in his account that was intended to be his tuition and room and board, he didn’t panic.

    He presented himself to the court, they cleared his driving record, and set another court date for a month later, where they would determine whether he would have to pay the $899 or a reduced amount. Still to come.

    But when this happened, I kept thinking – What if he didn’t have that cash in his account as a fallback? What if he made the wrong decision, here on the verge of starting this amazing educational opportunity, and been jailed instead? What if he hadn’t opened that letter, or if it had arrived in his LA mailbox after he’d gone to Berkeley?

    And then I think what if he’d been a poor kid, a kid on the verge not of PhD at Berkeley, but of City College in East LA, or trade tech school, and he didn’t have that $899? A paperwork screw-up can really destroy someone’s life.

    • Ronan

      There’s some interesting research done by Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman (alhough I havent read the books yet) about how the US carceral state has reimagined the concept of citizenship in the US and transformed entire communities


      I keep hoping Scott L (or someone) would review it here, as the subject is so far up a number of commentators ballparks (I know Im using that phrase incorrectly) that it could be a pretty interesting thread.

  • ChrisS

    Fascinating article. I never really thought about these small town courts as significant revenue generators. The financing of a new court house by increasing fines is appalling to me. Giving someone a financial incentive to abuse their power is a really easy way to ensure abuses of power.

  • postmodulator

    I knew there were a lot of bad people who were okay with making a living preying on their fellow human beings.

    Did everyone else know there were this many? I am not often accused of naivete.

    • Sev

      Consider the alternatives available today- shit jobs at low wages in which you’re the one being preyed upon. Being a minor predator starts to sound attractive- sad to say.

  • Mike G

    “But when I bring that up, the prosecutors don’t like it. The arrest warrants bring more fines and make the towns more money.”

    The fucking predator state. No wonder people hate and mistrust the government.

  • NewishLawyer

    The part that most horrified me was the stuff about lawyers who were able to be judges in one municipality, prosecutors in another, and still maintain private practice (and sometimes criminal defense practices) in another municipality.

    That is a breathtaking amount of the Kafkaesque. I am not even sure Kafka could believe that situation.

    I agree with the other sentiments. This is what happens when direct taxes like income taxes are vilified, municipalities will find ways to raise the money in other ways. These don’t necessarily need to be gotcha traps. One of the thing that amazed me on moving to California is how car registration needs to be done annually and stays relatively expensive. In NY, it is much cheaper and I believe done on a less than annual basis. California also places a sales tax on almost everything.

    That being said, I am sure the conservative response or idea for reform would just be to have cities operate on less revenue and have people expect government to do less.

    Foer has a cover story in TNR about how our love for federalism causes situations like this because it creates a lot of little fiefdoms and a lot of petty princes and princesses.

    • sparks

      To be more precise, there’s no sales tax on groceries and prescription medicine in CA so almost everything except a couple of important ones. I was surprised to find states where groceries are taxed, but they exist. As far as cars, yup it’s expensive and part of that cost is also a smog inspection every two years, and gasoline is highly taxed and more expensive.

      That said, even my area of CA tries some of these anti-poor measures, and they become more prevalent when the economy’s down. I happened to be picking up a friend ~15 years ago, when a team of police officers came to haul someone in for not appearing in court because he didn’t have the money to take the train and got caught and cited. Four officers for that, and they did a full apartment search before taking him away. I watched the whole thing from the apartment across the way, it was very enlightening.

      • NewishLawyer

        With the exception of undergrad and a year in Japan, my entire life has been spent in the NYC-Metro and SF-Bay Areas. This has largely destroyed any perception on what the rest of the country feels like are reasonable rates for rent and gas prices.

        There are probably examples of this all over the United States including relatively to very liberal areas like the SF, Berkeley, NYC, etc. Even Philadelphia has some really horrible examples of civil forfeiture cases. But anti-tax mania destroys the ability of liberal municipalities to raise taxes as well.

      • NewishLawyer

        NYC and Portland (Oregon) have their own income taxes. SF is not allowed to have one.

        • Barry Freed

          Too bad. It would be nice to grab a nice slice of that ridiculous tech money driving everything sky high there.

        • Portland does not have income tax. You are probably thinking of the arts tax, which is a capitation tax, with the floor for payment set at only $1,000. I always vote for tax increases here, but I made an exception for that one.

      • JMP

        The “smog inspection” is weird, and part of CA’s light regulations on cars; all it is is an emissions check, and it’s only every two years; I’m used to an annual full inspection that takes all day. And while the gas tax is high, that basically serves to make up for highways that actually don’t have tolls.

  • mpowell

    There’s a pretty simple solution to this kind of thing. You just make it so that local jurisdictions have to pass their revenue from fines up a level to the state. If it isn’t worth enforcing a law for the sake of the law being obeyed, then get rid of the law. The fine should only be there to motivate the citizen not the local govt.

    • snarkout

      Highly similar to the finding with civil forfeiture that states where forfeiture went into a general pool (for education or general revenue) had vastly fewer abuses than states where it went to police/prosecutors or to a pool controlled by local officials.

      • Snarki, child of Loki

        Those fines/forfeitures need to go to stuff like education, environmental protection, and public defenders.

        GUARANTEED the abuses will stop.

        • Pat

          It’s also possible that the cops in St. Louis County just like harassing and shooting African American kids.

          It’s a good start, but there’s more to be done.

        • Or even have all fines collected be pooled across the entire state. If you do it that way the marginal revenue from a traffic ticket decreases significantly.

  • Anna in PDX

    This is a very good story. I have followed Balko on and off for years and read his very good book about the militarization of the police last year (The Rise of the Warrior Cop). He’s a treasure among jouralists. One of the reasons I don’t follow him regularly is that one of the things he regularly reports on is cops killing pets (“puppycide”).

    • Nobdy

      You ever stared into the eyes of a vicious goldfish while serving a warrant, not knowing if he was going to jump out of the bowl and finslap you? If not, then you can’t judge these heroes.

  • trex

    This is not just a problem in St. Louis County but in all of eastern Missouri as far as I can tell, and maybe the whole state, because of the low tax/low regulatory environment: without high enough taxes to pay the salaries of police officers they have to hunt for their supper, and hunt they do.

    My wife and I experienced this in the tiny farming town of Foley, Missouri, population 621, in Lincoln County northwest of Ferguson. Why an isolated rural town this tiny would even HAVE a police force instead of contracting the county sheriffs should give anyone pause to reflect on what is really going on there. As we were approaching the town in a very flat area where we could see for well over a mile we saw a police car with flashing lights where someone had been pulled over on the side of the road. Further down the road be could see another police car on the side of the road with a radar gun sitting out in plain sight in a parking lot. The speed drops to 60 mph to 30 mph on this road and my wife was very careful to drop below 30 mph well before we passed the plane of the sign. Yet the second police car pulled out, pulled us over, and an unfriendly officer in a raggedy T-shirt and jeans told us he clocked us going 14 miles an hour over the speed limit. We were stunned, knowing this wasn’t true.

    My wife was very upset and wanted to argue with him but I warned her that in this area we were likely to end up trussed up in somebody’s barn hanging from the rafters by our wrists if we did. She begrudgingly accepted the ticket and we went on our way.

    Later I contacted our local insurance agent, explained the situation, and asked what we should do. He laughed and explained that Foley has a notorious speed scam going and that the only thing you can do is hire an attorney to try and fix the points, something we weren’t interested in pursuing. From there I went online and discovered that, indeed, Foley is a well-known speed scam – speed “trap. doesn’t describe it because whether you are speeding or not, you will get a ticket. Multiple websites have it listed and dozens of people describe having the same experience as we did: driving at or under the speed limit and getting ticketed for being wildly over it, sometimes 20 or 30 miles an hour over, even having slowed down seeing the very apparent police car sitting there by the side of the road. Some irate drivers asked to see the radar gun; the officers always refuse. A few went to court to argue the ticket to no avail, and suspected the judge was related to the police chief.

    Coming from an urban area in a blue state I was naïvely under the impression that this sort of thing was a relic of corrupt sheriffs in the 20th-century South and had a long disappeared. The events in Ferguson and greater St. Louis area have proven otherwise. This is one of the dire consequences of unfunded governments due to low taxes. Between the ideology, the racism, and the entrenched powers that be with their vested interests, this isn’t going to change anytime soon.

    • Brien Jackson

      I mean, this is a problem just about everywhere, only to varying degrees. At the very least, how many people have never noticed a drastic increase in the number of deputies policing the roads and being extra aggressive in handing out tickets during the last week of the month?

      • Nobdy

        A lot of people in L.A. and surrounding municipalities complain about aggressive traffic enforcement, to name a blue-state urban example.

        In NYC you don’t really see it, but of course the NYPD has its own horrible problems (not necessarily related to financial shakedowns though.)

        • Brien Jackson

          I’ll give Maryland (non-Prince George’s County areas anyway) credit: I see traffic cops acting stupidly far less here than I do/have anywhere else. There’s no denying that they’re EVERYWHERE during the last week of the month, every month, though. It’s clockwork.

      • trex

        I’ve lived in the greater Detroit area almost all my life and we don’t have this problem. I’ve traveled extensively throughout Michigan and we don’t have this problem. I don’t have to worry about driving through some small town in the Upper Peninsula and being a target of police fraud. Sure, there are extra cops out at certain times to be sure, and I myself live in a town that has a well-known speed trap. But it is a legitimate trap: you will only get ticketed IF you are speeding, not because the town has to hand out bogus tickets in order to survive. The differences between Michigan and Missouri is that our taxes are generally much higher here, small towns usually contract out to county police, and our police forces are much more racially integrated.

        • Brien Jackson

          Well you’ve conceded the point: The reason there “are extra cops out at certain times” is because they need to ramp up enforcement to generate revenue. As I said, the problem exists everywhere, although to much different degrees.

          • trex

            Well no, I haven’t conceded the point at all. Ticket quotas to generate revenue are now illegal in the state of Michigan. We see extra police out around holidays and in areas that are particularly dangerous stretches where excessive speed kills. Coming from a family of three generations of local police officers and having a lot of friends who do police work I can tell you from talking with them that if anything, the pressure to write tickets in this area comes from a need to justify their daily activity to management as well as out of genuine concerns for safety, not for income generation. Now and then a Police Department will pressure it’s officers to meet quotas – and what happens is the officers usually turn around and sue the shit out of them. And win.

            This isn’t to say the problems that plague Missouri are not widespread, but they are not ubiquitous, and can be overcome with the right set of policies in place.

            • sharculese

              Ticket quotas to generate revenue are now illegal in the state of Michigan.

              That certainly settles it. The police would certainly never do something illegal.

              • Brien Jackson

                He has family members who are cops. Your argument is obviously invalid.

            • Col Bat Guano

              and what happens is the officers usually turn around and sue the shit out of them. And win.

              I would love to see some examples of this majestic justice you speak of. Or is it just a story you heard?

              • cpinva

                “I would love to see some examples of this majestic justice you speak of. Or is it just a story you heard?”

                since it’s been 3 hours, and no response, I must sadly conclude trex just made the whole thing up. trolls do that, or so I’ve heard. you know, guys talk, you hear stuff in the locker room.

                • matt w

                  Amazingly, it has happened. But this story suggests that in 2007 Michigan municipalities could have explicit ticket quotas if it didn’t produce too much bad publicity.

          • rea

            And you know, there is a huge difference between police who are out hunting for people actually speeding, and police who are out ticketing peole who are speeding at all.

            • Brien Jackson

              Which is why I also included the “being extra aggressive” tag, which I guess I should have specified as “acting like dicks and doing patently stupid/dangerous shit” to catch people.

              Also ticketing people for flashing their lights to warn other drivers of the speed trap. That’s apparently a crime in this area that actually gets enforced via fine when it proves too effect in preventing the issuing of speeding tickets.

    • Joe Bob the III

      A scam I have encountered before is the local constabulary in a sparsely populated area will set up their speed trap on the interstate. That way they can be assured a supply of out-of-state travelers who live far enough away that it won’t be worth it to come back and fight a ticket in court. If they pull you over and see you have out-of-state plates you’re screwed. If they find you are a resident they have the option to let you go with a warning.

      I had this happen when I was a passenger in a car with MN plates traveling through Nebraska. We were pulled over and told we were speeding way more than we actually were. When the driver asked to see the radar gun the officer told us we couldn’t see it because it was in a plane! At that point the driver said to the officer: “You sure have a good system to fuck over out-of-towners here don’t you?” This was met with vague threats of consequences if the mouthing off continued but I think the officer decided it just wasn’t worth getting into it with us.

      • Barry Freed

        So did you get the ticket?

      • Pat

        Yeah, you’re white.

    • Col Bat Guano

      It’s not just used for revenue generation, but also as a form of social control. I used to live in Andover, MA, a lovely suburban town on the outer ring of Boston and home to Phillips Academy. Of course ~90% white. The next town north was Lawerence a much poorer and browner community. As we lived on the north end of town I was privledged to see the local police performing their most important function, pulling over Hispanic drivers as they headed south into town. Every week the police blotter in the local paper documented all the “driving without a license” or “taillight out” infractions given out to drivers named Martinez or Hernandez. It was always a mystery to me how they knew those guys didn’t have their license as they drove by the speed trap.

      • cpinva

        ” It was always a mystery to me how they knew those guys didn’t have their license as they drove by the speed trap.”

        just a guess, with no actual evidence to support it, but they probably used the speed trap as the reason for pulling people over. they then asked for (as is normal) the driver’s license, car registration and (a relatively new thing, at least in VA) proof of insurance. that’s when they got them for driving without a license. they figured, given the hue of the driver, the odds were probably better than 50-50 they wouldn’t have a valid driver’s license.

        as I said, just a guess.

        • Col Bat Guano

          Yeah, my guess was that they would get them for 37 in a 35 zone. In the end it was just a method of telling poor folks that their kind wasn’t welcome in town and any means of delivering that message was acceptable. Making a little revenue on the side was just the icing on the cake.

  • Nobdy

    This is a critical civil rights issue, up there with the incarceration of African Americans and voting rights. It’s good that it’s getting some attention.

  • Lee Rudolph

    Ah, Linndale! The (public, not school-) bus route from my neighborhood to my junior high school (c. 1960, before the Interstate divided it half) ran through the Village of Linndale. My first African-American schoolmates (e.g., the late Bill Crite) were from Linndale: it was adjacent to the site (in Brooklyn) of the old Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland and St. Louis Railway roundhouse, and black employees of the CCC&StL had settled there, almost uniquely on the West Side (my home neighborhood, South [now horribly miscalled “Old”] Brooklyn, was lily-white, and neither my elementary school nor my high school—both walking distance from home—had black pupils, until in my senior year of high school several were bussed in with other deaf students, the whole group being entirely cut off from the rest of the school, but for ableist reasons, not racist ones!). The power elite in Linndale was, however, Italian-American, and it was Police Chief Arcuri (father of another junior-high classmate) and Mayor Masten who started to make Linndale lemonade when the state/Feds pushed the Interstate lemon through the Village in the mid-sixties, dividing it into thirds (one each on either side of the highway, and one for the highway itself) and quite probably (not that this occurred to me at the time) eminent-domainitizing a disproportionate number of black-owned homes. I don’t know if any of the extorted traffic fines went to pay for the Peace Garden (which was understood to have been built after one of the Arcuri boys died in Vietnam), but I’d like to think so.

  • brugroffil

    Well, I just finished reading this. I literally feel sick to my stomach. It somehow makes me feel even worse than TNC’s “The Case for Reparations,” maybe because there was some amount of hope in there. This was just systemic racial oppression from start to finish. Ugh.

  • Sev

    Our City upon a Hill. In the early 80’s, Bill Cosby explained Reagan’s theory that “the poor people have all the money.” At least, I suppose, when it is extracted from them their cries do not disturb business in the State Capitol.

  • j_kay

    Balko has to be a leftie libertarian, like me, or he wouldn’t have so
    much career work in helping the little.

    But this one time when the Feds are as bad as local authorities.
    Consider the national Wars on Everu Excuse, national unjust sentencing,
    and Shelby.

    The difference between the South and the rest is, not racism,. for racist
    Bloomberg did too well in NYC, but CORRUPTION – we’re the Saudi Arabia of
    the US, I repeat.

  • cpinva

    “Balko has to be a leftie libertarian, like me, or he wouldn’t have so much career work in helping the little.”

    please to be explaining? libertarian dogma is, by definition, right leaning: it relies on the hilarious proposition that those who espouse it are “self-made (usually) men, who in no way benefited from the contributions of others, for their success. therefore, they are in no way obligated to return the favor.” it is a practice which works best on a desert island. otherwise, its basis is hollow.

  • cpinva

    I seem to vaguely recall reading a similar piece, years ago, about the antics of another set of “having no real reason for existing, and a negligible tax base, so we rape and pillage the people who can least afford it, to make up the difference.” small towns, in another state. this was many years ago, so don’t ask for specifics. this isn’t anything new. what is (hopefully) new, is that more light is being shined on it. if mr. brown’s legacy is that his murder is the catalyst for changing this, then he might not have died in vain.

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