The Honorable Judge Donald McCullin’s tenure as Ferguson, Missouri’s new municipal court judge will be short, but he already is making sweeping changes to help bring about justice. This week he entered an order declaring invalid all arrest warrants issued prior to January 1, 2015.

Judge McCullen was appointed in the wake of the resignation of former Ferguson judge Ronald Brockmeyer, who was found to be the epitome of corruption after a US Department of Justice investigation. Brockmeyer, who owed the IRS over $170,000, would not hesitate to  jail someone over a $100 fine. Aside from serving as judge as well as prosecutor in four different towns in the St. Louis metro area, Brockmeyer was aggressive in going after offenders guilty of “poverty violations.” Most of these have to do with motor vehicle issues, such as driving with a suspended license or expired vehicle registration, or failure to furnish proof of insurance coverage. These violations literally trap the working poor into debt cycles from which it is nearly impossible to escape. Unable to pay the fines, these people must continue to drive to work, hoping they won’t be pulled over again – the fines increase, more fines are incurred, arrests are made and jobs lost, leading to a downward spiral.

Judge Brockmeyer appeared to take pleasure in wringing every dime out of those who could least afford it – while at the same time, “fixing” similar tickets for his well-off cronies. These abuses were revealed in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting and the demonstrations that came in the wake of the officer’s acquittal. According to a St. Louis legal aid organization, there was an average of three arrest warrants for every household in the predominantly African-American community.

This week, Brockmeyer’s replacement, Judge McCullen issued an order to withdraw all arrest warrants issued prior to January 1, 2015, and additionally reinstates all driver’s licenses suspended for failure to appear on those arrest warrants. It is a move that may cost the city’s coffers – but will provide welcome relief for thousands of Ferguson residents who have accumulated astronomical fines for traffic violations and assorted misdemeanors. Judge McCullin says the reforms “should continue the process of restoring confidence in the court…and giving many residents a fresh start.” The new judge in town has already begun commuting fines and offering offenders the option of doing community service.

The City of Ferguson is still issuing arrest warrants to the tune of about 600 a month. Meanwhile, Judge McCullen, who is also African-American, will turn 75 next year – which is the mandatory retirement age for public employees in Missouri. Hopefully, he will be able to reverse many of the city’s abuses and provide some modicum of justice for those who need it the most.

SHARE
K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.