Audit finds courts ‘in disarray’ after police killing

Keywords Courts

An audit launched in the wake of unrest following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, found the city's court system "in disarray" and disorganized, according to a report released Wednesday by the Missouri state auditor.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway was in St. Louis to release details of the audit, which gave Ferguson courts a "poor" rating — the lowest available. The performance was so bad, Galloway said, that her office will conduct a follow-up review later this year.

Among the problems cited: Files stored in an unsecured storage garage and damaged by water and mold, and $26,000 in illegal fees. She also said uncooperative and "at times combative" court and city personnel that caused delays in access to files.

"It was like pulling teeth trying to get these records," Galloway said at a news conference Wednesday. "Roadblock after roadblock."

Ferguson City Manager De'Carlon Seewood said the city fully cooperated during the audit, which mostly covered the fiscal year ending June 30, 2015.

"There may have been some issues between their staff and our staff, but you kind of get that sometimes in an audit situation," Seewood said. "But everything they asked for, our staff got them. … But did they walk out hugging and kissing afterward? No."

Ferguson leaders disagreed with many of the findings. The city noted that several court reforms were implemented soon after the shooting and have continued in the years since.

Brown, who was black, was 18 and unarmed when he was fatally shot by white Ferguson officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014, following a confrontation in a neighborhood street. Wilson was eventually cleared of wrongdoing and resigned in November 2014.

The shooting resulted in sometimes violent protests and scrutiny of the St. Louis suburb. A review by the U.S. Department of Justice found biased treatment of blacks by Ferguson's police and accused the municipal court of making money on the backs of poor and minority residents.

Last year, the city settled a lawsuit with the Justice Department that requires additional reforms under supervision of a monitor team.

Galloway said her office's audit found that court records were kept in several places: A storage garage, the police and courts building, and City Hall. But Seewood said that was only temporary, necessitated by a roof leak. Typically, the records are stored in one place, Seewood said.

Galloway said there was no process to track records, which weren't stored in secure areas, even though some of the information included personal information, including social security and driver's license numbers.

Auditors were often told by city personnel that files could not be accessed or that they were too damaged from water and mold to read, Galloway said. Her office took what she called an unprecedented step of hiring a mold remediation company to recover and preserve the records.

Some records were never recovered, Galloway said, presumably because they were lost or misplaced. Enough records were uncovered to show that at least $1,400 in cash was missing, "but the careless way these records were kept may prevent us from ever knowing the total amount," she said.

Seewood said the city fired an employee after an investigation of the missing funds but there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute her.

The audit also found that over the course of the fiscal year audited, $26,000 in illegal fees were paid to the court for costs such as a $15 "letter fee" and a $50 "warrant recall fee." The court also charged a $75 "non-prosecution fee" for those who made an initial report but eventually declined to seek charges.

In its official response, Ferguson said ordinances passed in late 2014 and early 2015 did away with those fees. Galloway said there was evidence the fees were collected after passage of the ordinances.

Concerns about Ferguson's municipal court practices prompted the previous state auditor, Tom Schweich, to begin a series of audits of municipal courts around Missouri, but especially in St. Louis County. Galloway said the problems in Ferguson are "consistent with other municipal courts — poor record keeping, illegal fees, lack of checks and balances."

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