FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Ferguson's municipal court held its first session Thursday night since a Department of Justice report found the city operated a profit-driven system that heightened tensions among black residents for years before the fatal shooting of a black, unarmed 18-year-old by a white police officer last summer led to widespread protests.
Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Roy Richter presided over the session in an unprecedented move ordered by the state Supreme Court days after the federal inquiry's release. He didn't directly address the circumstance behind his appointment.
Ronald Brockmeyer, the full-time lawyer and part-time judge who used to run the court, was ousted after being identified in the federal report as one of several city officials who helped "fix" traffic tickets for colleagues and friends. He has since stepped down from similar posts as either a municipal judge or once- and twice-a-month prosecutor in four other nearby towns in north St. Louis County.
Richter, who was also given the power to overhaul court practices in Ferguson, issued an order Wednesday barring cameras from the courtroom in response to heavy media interest. Court officials instead set up a closed-circuit video feed for reporters in a City Hall work room.
Tiffany Beck, 44, came to court to fight a ticket for not having proper proof of insurance that she blamed on an ex-girlfriend's deceit. Beck said an assistant Ferguson city prosecutor dismissed the ticket after she showed proof of insurance.
"They're doing things a lot differently than before," she said. "If they keep it up, the people of Ferguson will have plenty to be happy about."
The federal report said Ferguson was counting on revenues from fines and fees to generate $3.1 million, or nearly one-quarter of its total $13.3 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year. It also faulted Ferguson for issuing an excessive number of arrest warrants when traffic-court offenders failed to pay their fines on time or missed court dates, with relatively minor violations then leading to jail time.
A St. Louis County grand jury and the Justice Department, in a separate investigation, both declined to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson, who resigned from the department after Michael Brown's shooting. The Justice Department report said Wilson acted in self-defense.
Local attorneys said they're optimistic that Richter's appointment will spur change not only in Ferguson's court system but also in the 80 other municipal courts spread across St. Louis County. But several expressed concern that Richter — in an apparent attempt to preserve the privacy of defendants, most of whom weren't accompanied by lawyers — spoke in hushed tones from the bench.
"I don't see any discernible difference," said Michael-John Voss of the Arch City Defenders, a nonprofit legal clinic that is suing Ferguson and the adjacent town of Jennings over their municipal court practices. "It's a n open court issue. If you're whispering at the bench, it makes you distrust the system."
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