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Webb v. City of Maplewood

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

June 5, 2017

CECELIA ROBERTS WEBB, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
THE CITY OF MAPLEWOOD, MISSOURI, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs in this putative class action claim that the City of Maplewood, Missouri (the City), caused warrants to be issued against them for “failure to appear” and/or for “failure to pay” on tickets for minor traffic and other offenses, and imposed warrant bond fees that required them to pay hundreds of dollars or be jailed in order to recall the warrant(s). They claim that the extortionist nature of these “warrant recall bonds, ” and the policies underlying their issuance, deprived them of various of their constitutional rights. The City moves to dismiss the complaint and, alternatively, to strike immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter from the complaint. Plaintiffs concede that Count Six of their seven-count complaint should be dismissed, and I will grant the motion to dismiss as it relates to that count. In all other respects, I will deny the City's motions.

         Background[1]

         The named plaintiffs are six individuals who allege that they have been arrested on warrants issued without probable cause by the City of Maplewood for failure to appear or failure to pay on minor ordinance violations and were made to pay hundreds of dollars in warrant bond fees or were jailed because they were unable to pay such fees. They claim that no inquiries were ever made into their ability to pay either the warrant bond fees or underlying fines, and they were not afforded counsel prior to being jailed on the warrants or in relation to the underlying debt-collection proceedings. They also claim that they are denied fair access to judicial proceedings given the threat of imprisonment if they appear in court without money to pay the warrant fees. They bring this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting claims under the First, Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. They also bring claims of unjust enrichment and due process violations under Missouri law.

         Count One of the complaint alleges that, through its policies and practices, the City violated - and continues to violate - the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment by jailing plaintiffs and/or threatening to jail them on warrants issued for their inability to pay debts owed for traffic and other minor offenses, without conducting any inquiry into their ability to pay and without considering alternatives to imprisonment. Plaintiffs claim that the City has kept them, and persons similarly situated, in jail unless and until they pay arbitrarily-determined sums of money to the City. Plaintiffs allege that other persons who are likewise subject to these warrants, but who are not indigent and pay a sum of cash to release the warrants, are not imprisoned.

         Count Two alleges that, through its policies and practices, the City violated - and continues to violate - the First and Fourteenth Amendments by denying plaintiffs access to judicial proceedings in the municipal court, depriving them of liberty and procedural due process. Plaintiffs claim that the courthouse doors are essentially closed to them because of the threat of imprisonment if they are unable to pay warrant recall bonds, thereby discouraging and/or preventing them from attending judicial proceedings to challenge the warrant recall bonds or the underlying charges of “failure to appear” or “failure to pay” upon which the warrants rest.

         Count Three alleges that the City violated plaintiffs' rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments by jailing them for unpaid debts without affording them the benefit of counsel. Plaintiffs claim that the City has a policy and practice of not providing adequate counsel at hearings “where indigent people are ordered to be imprisoned . . . for unpaid debts (which are, in turn, based on payment plans arising from traffic and other violations at which the jailed individuals were also unrepresented)[.]” (Compl., ECF #1 at 51.)

         Count Four alleges that the City's policy and practice of issuing and serving arrest warrants without a fair and reliable determination of probable cause violates the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs claim that these warrants are issued for failure to pay debts from traffic and other minor cases, without any inquiry into their ability to pay or with knowledge that they are impoverished and unable to pay. Plaintiffs claim that the City's policy permits wealthy or legally represented persons to remove these warrants with monetary payments to the City, but that persons who cannot afford to make such payments continue to have warrants lodged against them.

         Count Five alleges that the use of jail and threat of jail to collect debts owed to the City violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it imposes “unduly restrictive methods of collections solely because the debt is owed to the government and not to a private creditor.” Plaintiffs further allege that the “City takes advantage of its control over the machinery of the penal and police systems to deny debtors the statutory protections that every other debtor may invoke against a private creditor.” (Compl., ECF #1 at 52.)

         Count Six alleges that, under Missouri Supreme Court Rule 74.06(b)(4), judgments entered for “failure to appear” are void because they fail to comply with the procedural requirements of Missouri Rule of Civil Procedure 37.33(b). In response to the motion to dismiss, plaintiffs have conceded that the relief sought in this count is barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. I will therefore grant the City's motion to dismiss as it relates to Count 6.

         Count Seven alleges that the City was unjustly enriched when it accepted payments from plaintiffs and others similarly situated on the warrant recall bonds that were issued and imposed through unlawful and unconstitutional means.

         As relief, plaintiffs seek a declaration that the City's policies and practices, as outlined above, violate plaintiffs' constitutional rights; a permanent injunction preventing the City from enforcing these policies and practices; an injunction preventing the City from denying court access to any individual and to order the City to forgive all outstanding “failure to appear” fines or “warrant recall” fees that have been assessed but not yet collected; restitution for monies paid to the City pursuant to its unlawful conduct, policies, and procedures; and an award of compensatory damages, attorneys' fees, and costs.

         The City moves to dismiss the complaint in its entirety, arguing that various immunity doctrines bar the claims; that the complaint fails to comply with Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) and 10(b); that this Court lacks jurisdiction over plaintiffs' constitutional claims for lack of standing and/or ripeness; that plaintiffs have failed to allege sufficient facts to support their constitutional claims; and/or that the City did not unjustly or inequitably appropriate plaintiffs' monies as alleged in Count Seven. I will address each of these arguments in turn.

         Discussion

         A. Jurisdiction

         Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires dismissal if the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. A district court has subject matter jurisdiction in civil actions arising under the laws of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         1. Plaintiff Lemicy - Standing to Sue for ...


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