‘Debtor’s prison’ lawsuit filed against Florissant resolved with $2.9 million settlement

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Missouri city will pay nearly $3 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it and six other St. Louis suburbs of violating the constitutional rights of residents by jailing them and forcing them to pay fines and fees amounting to millions of dollars, often for minor traffic violations.

The $2.9 million settlement with the city of Florissant was approved by a federal judge on Tuesday and announced Wednesday by ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-based public interest law firm. The class-action lawsuit was filed in 2016.

Florissant was among several St. Louis County cities whose policing and court practices were scrutinized after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. Brown, a Black 18-year-old, was killed by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014.

Wilson was not charged, but the shooting led to months of protests and prompted a Department of Justice investigation. In 2015, the federal agency accused Ferguson of racially biased policing and using excessive fines and court fees. A year later, Ferguson and the Justice Department reached an agreement that required sweeping reforms.

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Funds from the Florissant settlement will be distributed among more than 85,000 people who were jailed or fined between Oct. 31, 2011, and Feb. 1, 2023. The settlement requires Florissant to forgive unpaid fees from traffic violations between Oct. 31, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2019, and to take other steps, including ensuring the right to an attorney for anyone brought before a municipal judge.

The Associated Press left telephone messages with the Florissant mayor’s office. Florissant, with 52,000 residents, is the largest city in St. Louis County.

Allison Nelson, now 32, said she was jailed twice in Florissant because she couldn’t afford to pay traffic fines.

“To hold money over someone’s head like that, especially with me being as young as I was — that was crazy to me,” Nelson said in a news release from ArchCity Defenders.

Florissant joins the Missouri cities of Jennings, Normandy, Edmundson, Maplewood and St. Ann in settling the lawsuit. ArchCity Defenders said the six settlements combined have amounted to $16 million in damages. The lawsuit is still pending against the city of Ferguson.


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