City May Be Liable for 'Pay-to-Play' Bail

By William Vogeler, Esq. on May 07, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

'My way or the highway,' says the Riverfront Times.

That's how the newspaper describes the situation over traffic fines in the city of Maplewood, a small suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. The city makes drivers pay a bond or go to jail when they're ticketed.

"Pay-to-play" bail is business as usual in many municipal courts, but the cities could have a problem. In Webb v. City of Maplewood, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals says the city may be liable for giving drivers nothing more than a "Hobson's choice."

Thousands in Illinois

The case started two years ago with a class action by people who were forced to pay $500 cash bonds or go to jail. ArchCity, a nonprofit organization, said poor people were going to jail because they could not afford the bail.

Similar complaints are pending against other cities, including Ferguson, Florissant, St. Ann, and Arnold. ArchCity says they could affect thousands of people in Illinois alone.

"The impact of the Eighth Circuit stating clearly that the municipalities can be held liable for these practices means that the argument that Maplewood is making is not going to be available to any of those cities," ArchCity executive director Blake Strode said.

ArchCity said the bail system violates due process and equal protection rights. Maplewood said it was immune, but the appeals court rejected the defense.

Legislative Abuse

The city claimed the municipal court -- not the city -- was responsible for extracting the bail. That, the Eighth Circuit said, did not protect the city.

"Even if the court were entitled to immunity -- an issue we do not opine on -- that immunity would not shield the City from its separate liability if any," the appeals panel said.

The judges said the law has not always been clear, but municipalities can be held accountable for legislative abuse. They said "it is now clear that the absolute immunity of its policymakers does not shield a city from liability for its policies."

According to reports, 40 percent of Americans cannot afford such unexpected bail or fines for traffic tickets. In California, for example, a red-light ticket is $490.

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