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Two Missouri Cities Sued For Repeatedly Imprisoning Traffic Violators

The lawsuit charge that the two St. Louis suburbs excessively fined and jailed impoverished people for unpaid traffic violations to raise revenue.

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Keilee Fant, a 37-year-old single mother and nursing assistant, was stopped in October 2013 while driving her children to school and sent to jail for unpaid traffic tickets. According to a lawsuit filed Sunday with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, she was told she could be released if she came up with $300. Unable to pay, Fant was held in jail for several weeks and shuffled around to different cities and jails, each one calling on her to pay hundreds of dollars for her release.

Over the past 10 years, Fant was sent to jail more than a dozen times for not being able to pay off traffic tickets. She is now one of the plaintiffs who filed two lawsuits, one against Ferguson, Missouri and other against Jennings, Missouri, alleging the two St. Louis suburbs excessively imprisoned impoverished people for unpaid traffic violations.

The lawsuit suggests the plaintiffs were punished for profit and the imprisonments were part of a scheme that's earned the cities millions of dollars over the past several years.

In 2014, Ferugson issued an average of more than 3.6 arrest warrants per household and almost 2.2 arrest warrants for every adult, mostly in cases involving unpaid debt for tickets, according to the lawsuit.

The 15 plaintiffs listed in the lawsuits claimed the prisons were unlawful and unsanitary. They were kept in overcrowded cells, denied toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and clean clothes. The walls were allegedly smeared with mucus, blood, and feces. Dehydration was another problem, as the plaintiffs feared drinking the foul smelling, yellow water.

The lawsuit states that jail guards often times taunted them for not being able pay for their release.

When Fant was forced to share a blanket with another female inmate, jail guards called them "stanky ass dykes" and "dirty whores."

Public records from Jennings, released by city officials and obtained by the New York Times, show that some of the plaintiffs repeatedly did not show up to court. Their cases were postponed several times before arrest warrants were issued. Jennings residents said they avoided going to court because they did not show up in court out of fear of being sent back to jail, according to the Times.

Tensions are high between Ferguson residents and law enforcement, following the August 2014 death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager fatally shot by a Ferguson police officer. Brown's death sparked nation-wide protests highlighting mistrust between police and the community.

The lawsuits were filed by Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Washington, ArchCity Defenders, a group in St. Louis, and St Louis University Law School.

Mary Ann Georgantopoulos is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Mary Ann Georgantopoulos at maryann.georgantopoulos@buzzfeed.com.

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