In Ferguson's shadow, two lawsuits focus on inequalities

Lawsuit accuses 13 Missouri cities of engaging in overzealous traffic ticketing, particularly in poor areas

The St. Louis area first faced outrage in the streets after the police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Now, discontent has moved to the courts — and the issues have little to do with the police use of force.

A pair of lawsuits filed in state and federal courts Thursday both deal with alleged inequalities raised during months of protests.

One lawsuit, filed against 13 St. Louis County municipalities by Missouri Atty. Gen. Chris Koster, charges that cities are engaged in overzealous traffic ticketing, actions that have infuriated the largely black community.

The other lawsuit, filed in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleges that a north St. Louis County school district's election discriminates against black voters.

Both legal challenges spring directly from the months of public scrutiny that fell upon local governments and predominantly white political leadership following the Aug. 9 death of Brown, who was black, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo.

The lawsuits also are among the first concrete attempts at reform that don't directly involve Ferguson's city government or police department.

The state lawsuit filed by Koster's office said that 13 cities had violated Missouri law requiring that municipalities report how much of their revenue was generated by tickets and fines. Under state law, that money is not to exceed 30% of city revenue.

Many cities in northern St. Louis County rely heavily on tickets and fines to finance services. Although Ferguson relies on ticket revenue, it was not named in the lawsuit and has initiated some reforms on ticket procedures. Critics say such heavy ticketing unfairly targets poor residents and drivers who end up paying a disproportionate amount of the fees — and the attorney general agreed.

"The Macks Creek law was enacted to protect Missourians from predatory traffic ticketing," Koster said in a statement, referring to the law that caps and tracks ticket revenue. The measure was named after a small Missouri town that had turned into a notorious speed trap. "As we continue to identify areas for reform, an important first step is to require St. Louis County municipalities to follow the Macks Creek law to the letter. Based on my review, these 13 municipalities did not."

Koster is asking cities whose fines exceeded 30% of revenue to turn over the extra money to local schools. Failure to comply could result in the cities losing jurisdiction over fines.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against a school district that serves Ferguson and other communities, alleging that the district disenfranchises black voters.

The Ferguson-Florissant School District has seven board members, and only one is black. The district serves 11,000 students in northern St. Louis County, almost 80% of whom are black, according to the ACLU.

The school board members are selected in at-large elections. The lawsuit charges that because black voters are a slight minority inside the district's boundaries, their relative voting strength is unfairly weakened in at-large elections.

"At-large elections are perfectly OK in places where you don't have a climate of racial polarization," said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's voting rights project in New York. However, he said, data from the district showed that candidates were largely supported along racial lines, signaling a problem.

The ACLU's suit argues that the voting system for the district should allow for board members to be elected to represent neighborhoods in order to better represent black voters.

"We've seen African Americans excluded from making decisions that affect our children," one plaintiff, Redditt Hudson, said in a statement. Hudson, who works for the NAACP, is a former St. Louis police officer with two daughters in the district.

"We need to be able to advocate for an education that will put our kids first and not political agendas," he said.

A school district spokeswoman said that officials were still reviewing the lawsuit and did not yet have a comment.

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