(Editor's note: The events described occurred more than 11 years ago in 2003).
On Wednesday, April 16, 2003, I was in Bel-Ridge, Missouri, Municipal Court to plead “not guilty.” The violation listed on the ticket did not match the reality of what actually happened on the road. In a file folder, I had documents and photographs to rebut the charge. The ticket stated that Court convened at 6:30 P.M. I arrived 20 minutes early.
Before 9:30 that evening, I had been tightly handcuffed twice, verbally abused by police, pushed into a depressing detention cell, and made an example of in front of 75 to 100 people.
When I arrived by car at 6:10 P.M. to 8842 Natural Bridge Road, I spotted what looked to me to be a group of shabby buildings which made up the Bel-Ridge Municipal Complex. They had some parking spaces on their property but nowhere near the number of spaces for the amount of defendants their officers had netted for that night’s hearing. By that time the only parking available to me was on a nearby residential street which was a five minute walk from the Municipal Court door.
It was raining that evening. I was wearing a business suit. My umbrella was in my car but that night I was driving a rental because my car was in the shop. After walking the five minutes to where the crowd was lined up, we were made to stand in the rain for another 10 minutes before the police officers processed us into the building. While in line, I was asked several times if I was an attorney.
Inside the door, I was told to empty my pockets into a small basket. This included my cell phone, which I had already turned off. The police officer ran a metal detector wand over me. When I went to collect my things from the basket, the police officer took my phone and put it on the floor with a large number of other cell phones taken from the seventy-five or more defendants already seated inside. I told the officer that I was concerned about making sure I got my phone back. He answered by saying, “That’s your problem.” At that moment my internal radar came on.
Again, I was asked, “Are you an attorney?” After stating that I was not, I was pointed to the check-in window. At the window I was asked again. Standing there in my suit, holding my file and a book, I said, “No.” The other defendants were in tee-shirts, slacks, and other casual clothes. They were mostly black, only a hand full of us were white. After check-in I moved toward a seat near the front so I could better hear the proceedings. One of the police officers stopped me and told me to “sit over there.” He directed me to a metal folding chair near the back of the room.
The room was long but very narrow. It had a low ceiling. I was sitting far from the judge, at least 50 feet back, maybe more. There were maybe 20 rows of eight chairs per row. The rows were divided into two sections. There were five seats in the right section, an aisle, then three seats in the left section. There were probably 15 rows between me and the Court. Defendants filled almost every seat. There were maybe 120 people seated between me and the judge. I’m guessing there were 140 defendants in that small room.
As noted above, most of the defendants were black. We were surrounded by seven white police officers. They were not friendly, they were not helpful, and they treated the people in that room as if they were criminals. Many of the officers were verbally abusive to defendants.
When the Municipal Court proceedings were called to order by the judge, he spoke to this large crowd for about five minutes. We in the back could not hear what the judge was saying. Sitting next to me was one of the few white defendants in the room. He raised his hand, then waved it, but was not recognized by the judge. He then spoke out loud, “we cannot hear the judge in the back.” One of the officers shouted at him to “shut up.”
I brought a paperback book to read while I waited to plead not guilty. But, I was so disturbed by what I saw going on around me, I could not focus on the book. Quietly, in a voice that did not carry, I asked some of the people near me why they were there. One black man, Antonio D., stated that he had been stopped for speeding in a private parking lot.
The white man from St. Charles, Mo., who was sitting next to me, stated that he had been stopped on the interstate for doing 81 MPH. He said he was going fast but nowhere near 81 MPH. He immediately asked the officer to see the radar readout, the officer refused and wrote the ticket.
An older black man was cited for driving without a license. He told me he didn’t know how to file the papers to get his driver’s license back after the suspension period ended and he did not have the money to hire a traffic attorney.
Most of the people in the room did not look like they could easily afford an attorney. If they had hired attorneys, the attorneys would have settled most of the cases being heard that day. Instead a mostly black group of defendants was made to sit in metal folding chairs, some of them for hours, surrounded by seven white police officers, being judged by an all white Court.
A long time had passed since our first conversation. Finally, I quietly said to those near me, “I don’t like the police officers being so abusive to the people in the crowd. It’s not right.” I looked toward the seats behind us, and standing behind the last row, one of the officers was glaring at me.
Within a few minutes a different police officer approached me, asked my name, and walked toward the front. Everyone sitting near me was amazed. As far as we had seen, I was the only one in that room who was asked to supply their name. Later two officers approached and asked me to follow them. They told me to put my hands behind my back. They said I was being arrested for Contempt of Court. I asked, “for what?” One officer actually said I was being arrested for being a “disruptive influence because I was reading my book and talking to my neighbors.” In front of the remaining crowd, they roughly and tightly put handcuffs on me. While this was going on, I was looking at the people with whom I had been sitting. I said in their direction, “I’m being arrested for reading my book and talking to you.” The officer jerked my arms and growled, “shut up.”
I was taken out of that building by a side door and walked in the pouring rain to another building. My expensive suit was being soaked again. I said to the young man who was escorting me, “You know what they are doing is bogus.” He replied, “I only do what I am told.” Looking closely at his eyes, I said to him, “That’s what Saddam Hussein’s police say.” He shrugged but kept leading me toward a small, unpleasant looking building. Inside the lock-up building, the folder containing my documents was taken from me. I was told they were doing me a favor by allowing me to keep my book. He put me in a very small holding cell. It was three small steps long and one step wide. Being in there was shocking and depressing.
I saw no paperwork, no warrant, no nothing. No charges were read to me. I was not finger printed. “This couldn’t be legal,” I thought.
Time moved very slowly in that cell. I did not get any reading done. I was angry. I wanted to show them they could not get away with this. I wanted someone powerful to come and tell them to put a stop to this. After a while, I realized I was in their power and they could hurt me and keep me locked up in this terrible place.
Later, a different police officer came into the cell. I was being taken back to the Court building. He handcuffed me, this time squeezing them even tighter than the first time. The cuffs left marks on my wrist. Before we left that building, I told them to give me back my file. I could not see it on top of the file cabinet where the first officer had placed it before they put me in the cell. I refused to leave until they found it and gave it back. It was found and handed to the police officer escort.
Again, I was taken for a walk in the rain. Once we were back in the Municipal Court building, he removed the handcuffs and put me into a chair near the front, along the wall, where they make prisoners in jump suits sit. I asked for the folder. He refused to return it. Later I saw him and others looking through the papers in the folder. At one point I asked for some water. The answer was “no.”
Even at this late hour there was still a long line of defendants waiting to have their case heard by the judge. Now that I was up front, where I wanted to sit in the first place, I could hear how this Court conducted itself, and I wasn’t impressed. One hard-of-hearing older white women was there because she had been cited for having trash in her yard. I believe she was told to pay $150 per citation. As she was leaving, I saw several of the officers laughing at her behind her back. Many other defendants were treated in what I considered an insensitive, if not abusive, manner.
When all the defendants were heard and out of the room, I was called before the judge. I was alone with the Court and the police officers. The judge said something to me which I can’t remember as I am writing this. My response caused him to tell me that he told this to the crowd at the beginning of the session. I told him that we in the back could not hear his comments. I said that the guy next to me had put up his hand, waved it, and then said out loud that we could not hear him. The judge stopped me, ignored what I said, and repeated for me the unheard statement.
The charges were read and I was asked how I would plead. “Not guilty,” I said. In reality, I wanted to say that I did not understand the reason the ticket was issued in the first place. But, being afraid for my well-being in this Court Room, I thought the best thing I could do was to say not guilty and ask for a jury trial. In that way, people other than this judge and this prosecutor would decide my fate. I told him that I wanted this case set for a jury trial. He said something legalistic that I took to mean that if I could not ask for it in the correct legal language than I could not have a jury trial.
I said to the judge that if he would take five minutes now to look at the documents and pictures in my folder, he would see that there was no need for this to go any further. Anyone looking at the material in the folder would immediately see that the ticket made no sense and that the charge should be dismissed. He again gave some legalistic answer that meant no. I had the feeling he did not want this settled. He wanted me in this room again.
After pleading not guilty, the judge proceeded to lecture me. He sternly told me that next time I was in his Court, I was not to fidget in my seat, make a nuisance of myself, or disturb the people around me. I wanted to respond but this was not the time.
Rule 37.75(a) states that, “A criminal contempt may be punished summarily if the judge certifies that he saw or heard the conduct constituting the contempt and that it was committed in his presence.” If there were at least 50 feet and at least 50 people between the judge and I, could he have really seen me fidgeting in my seat or heard me talking to my neighbors? I believe the answer is no, he could not. I believe that he was told something by a police officer and then he allowed them to handcuff me and put me in the lock-up. Rule 37.75(a) does not say that police officers can report to the judge what they saw or heard. It says the judge must see or hear the conduct. In Bel-Ridge they have their own way of doing things.
After being dismissed by the judge, a police officer, acting as the Bailiff, handed me a notice which stated that my new court date was June 25, 2003.
I was in that courtroom because of a ticket issued on the afternoon of March 14, 2003. I was driving west on Natural Bridge Road. My intention was to turn left onto I-170 South. The light was green. I was driving in the left turn lane. As I was getting ready to make the left, I saw two east bound cars, one in each lane of approaching traffic, speeding toward the intersection. Had they not been speeding, I would have completed the left turn. Instead, I paused, waited for the cars to pass, and then proceeded through the intersection into the highway on-ramp. The light turned red before I was fully out of the intersection. Moments later the police officer stopped me. When he walked up to the car, he said I had been blocking the intersection. I did not understand what he meant. We talked. I still did not understand the violation. He asked for my driver’s license. I said, “You’re giving me a ticket! For what?” He came back with a ticket stating, “Impeded the flow of traffic by being in the intersection controlled by an electric signal.” The ordinance violated was listed as 300.010. Again, I said to him, “The light was green when I entered the intersection and I was gone the moment the two cars passed.”
After being in the Bel-Ridge Municipal Court, I have a better understanding of my traffic stop. In my opinion, that traffic stop was a moneymaker for Bel-Ridge, Missouri. In my opinion, the Bel-Ridge political establishment sends out its police force for the purpose of making money. Bel-Ridge police seek out every minor infraction and issue a ticket which helps pay the salaries of all the public officials. Again, it is my opinion that Bel-Ridge and all other communities who use their police force as a moneymaker should be stopped. If they will not stop, these communities should be disincorporated, removing their ability to use police powers for that purpose.
In a small community like Bel-Ridge, I find it hard to believe there should be that many defendants sitting in Municipal Court. I believe my case should never have gone to court that night. But, as a result of being there, I have seen the shadier side of the Municipal Court system.
(Lee Presser is the Host and Executive Producer of Conversation with Lee Presser which has appeared on Charter cable in Metro St. Louis since January 2001).