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Ferguson, Missouri, to pay $4.5 million to settle claims it illegally jailed thousands

After nine years of legal sparring, Ferguson, Missouri, has agreed to pay $4.5 million to settle claims it jailed thousands of people for not having the money to pay fines, fees and other court costs, a nonprofit legal advocacy group has announced.

A federal judge on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to the resolution of a class-action lawsuit filed against the St. Louis suburb in 2015 on behalf of impoverished people detained in Ferguson between Feb. 8, 2010, and Dec. 30, 2022, ArchCity Defenders said. 

Ferguson officials systematically violated the constitutional rights of people by "jailing them in deplorable conditions for an inability to pay and without the necessary legal process," ArchCity alleged in a news release

Checks will be sent to more than 15,000 people jailed by the city, with the amounts in proportion to the number of hours spent in Ferguson's jail, according to ArchCity. Ferguson did not admit to any wrongdoing in the settlement. The city did not respond to requests for comment.

Plaintiffs named in the suit include Ronnie Tucker, 59, who was arrested and jailed in 2013 under a municipal ordinance warrant. Ferguson jail staff told Tucker he would be held indefinitely until he could pay hundreds of dollars, with no inquiry made into his ability to pay the fees or access provided to an attorney, the suit alleged.

The circumstances Tucker allegedly found himself were commonplace and imposed upon thousands of others, according to the suit, whose plaintiffs included the Civil Rights Corps and the St. Louis University School of Law Civil Litigation Clinic.

Michael Brown's legacy

As the case wound its way through the legal system, several plaintiffs died, including Keilee Fant, who was jailed more than a dozen times between the ages of 17 and 37 for an inability to pay legal fees, ArchCity stated. In 2022, Fant said, "I'm still affected, it has taken a lot out of me. It was so inhumane that people couldn't believe it when it actually did go on," according to ArchCity.

"The harsh reality is that, oftentimes, those most impacted by injustice do not live long enough to see the seeds of change bloom. But this settlement would not be possible without them," stated Maureen Hanlon, managing attorney at ArchCity. 

Ferguson drew national attention nearly a decade ago after a White police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, a Black 18-year-old, on August 9, 2014, fueling months of protests and sparking a Department of Justice investigation. The federal agency in 2015 accused the city of racially biased policing and imposing excessive fines and court fees. The department and city reached an agreement mandating widespread reforms the following year. 

Still, Missouri is likely not the only state where people have languished in jail because they're unable to to pay traffic fines and other fees. Although debtors' prisons were abolished in the U.S. in the 1830s, civil liberties and legal advocates say thousands of Americans have remained behind bars in recent years because they can't afford to pay off their legal and other debts.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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