Judge unexpectedly meets with protesters about warrant amnesty

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI) – Protestors targeting the municipal court system across north St. Louis County and parts of west county stood outside the County Circuit Court building in Clayton Thursday afternoon. They were urging major changes in the bench warrant system which impacts low income residents who are unable to make court dates or to pay their fines on time. Much to their surprise the court’s presiding judge invited the group of 13 to come inside her courtroom to explain their concerns.

Presiding Judge Maura McShane is supposed to supervise the some 80 courts that are operated by municipalities to handle traffic and nuisance tickets, housing code matters and some domestic abuse. She told the demonstrators she has limited authority and cannot hire or fire court judges. But Judge McShane agreed to bring their concerns to the attention of a committee of judges and lawyers she has working to improve the system.

“We need the voices of low income people impacted by these courts on the committee,” said Derek Laney, an activist with MORE, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.
21 year old Autumn Mae of north county told the judge she had been locked up in a suburban jail for five days at age 17 because she had missed a court date and there was a bench warrant out for her arrest. She said she was not allowed to make a phone call.

Laney said the system of bench warrants issued for missed court dates keeps people from applying for jobs because they have a warrant on their record. Judge McShane responded that she was aware that was a problem. She said the municipal court committee is working on adding community service credits in lieu of fines for tickets.

Reginald Rounds complained that some municipalities are “balancing their budgets with ticket fines.” He added, “this system exists on the backs of low income people like myself.” For some residents ticket fines and fines for missing court dates total in the thousands of dollars.

Judge McShane agreed to stay in touch with the protest leaders and work to make changes.
Police officers handling security at the St. Louis County Courthouse said this was the first time they had ever seen a judge invite a group of demonstrators into the building to listen to their complaints.

St. Louis County voters will decide Tuesday whether to retain Judge McShane in office.