The Kansas City Municipal Court is one of the busiest in the metro, seeing 1,000 to 2,000 visitors a day who need to pay fines on parking tickets or deal with warrants they’ve received.
The pandemic temporarily shut it all down, creating a backlog of thousands of cases.
To address this issue, the court launched #ResolveIt. The monthlong program, which ended March 31, allowed people for the first time to dismiss warrants and pay fines through a virtual docket.
On the first morning of the #ResolveIt program, over 900 people were waiting to log in. In its first day, the court dismissed over 1,200 warrants, said Megan Pfannenstiel, Municipal Court administrator. This not only helps the people with warrants but also alleviates pressure on the courthouse when it reopens with limited appointments because of social distancing measures.
There was a third benefit: Because it was virtual, people had less fear of the court.
“The great thing about it being virtual is that the judge can’t arrest them, which is some people’s genuine fear,” Pfannenstiel said. “When we’ve had walk-in dockets in person, they would have to come down (to Municipal Court) and they know we have law enforcement officers in our building, and people are afraid and think it could be a trap and they would get arrested. I think that was our first big hurdle, to say, ‘No, this is not a trap, we genuinely want to help you.’”
In all, the court was able to dismiss over 5,000 warrants through the program, Pfannenstiel said.
How the Kansas City municipal court dismissed fees, warrants
#ResolveIt had three main ways to assist residents: dismissal of warrants issued for missed court appearances, reduction of parking ticket fines, and a 20% reduction in fines owed to the court. Data isn’t yet available on the parking and fine portions of the program.
Kianna Garret-Williams was one of the first people to take advantage of the reduction in parking fines. She said she had three outstanding tickets and was on the city’s website looking up how much she owed when she found the #ResolveIt program. She emailed to see if she qualified, faxed over some paperwork and was able to pay for all three tickets in one day.
Garret-Williams said the efficiency and knowing it was all handled was such a relief that she called her friends to tell them about the program.
The court has previously hosted warrant dismissal programs. Walk-in dockets and warrant-recall programs, or amnesty programs as they’re often called, are ways to allow those who have missed court dates to come to court, get a new court date and resolve the warrant.
The term “amnesty” implies a completely clean slate, which isn’t necessarily accurate, Pfannenstiel said.
But she said programs like these are important, given that once someone resolves a warrant, it’s easier for them to get jobs and lift other legal hurdles.
For example, Beyond facing the possibility of arrest and court fines for the warrant, warrants can cause additional issues. Iin Kansas City, if someone is issued a failure to appear warrant for certain moving violations, the court will send a notice to the Missouri Department of Revenue to suspend the person’s license.
Other courts in the area have reached out about the program and potential partnerships, but the court is hesitant to create a regularly scheduled program.
Pfannenstiel said that in a smaller previous program focusing on veterans, there were issues where people would clear their fines or warrants, then get more charges and fines and then wait for the program to return to get a discount — creating a cycle of fines.
Pfannenstiel reiterated that the virtual docket’s advantage over the walk-in ones is it’s a much more low-risk environment where an arrest isn’t possible.
She also said the court will be evaluating the parking ticket and fine reduction portions. The fine reduction doesn’t apply to court-ordered restitution or the court fee levied on all cases.
Other courts across the U.S. dismissing fines, fees during pandemic
Kansas City isn’t the only city giving grace to those with outstanding warrants or court fines during the pandemic. The idea was based on a similar program that new City Manager Brian Platt had worked on in New Jersey.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, a progressive law and public policy institute, has been monitoring state, county and city court systems that have been easing fees and fines in the past year.
Maine opted to vacate warrants for unpaid fees and fines in addition to failure to appear warrants, dismissing 12,420 warrants, according to the Brennan Center. Minnesota, Chicago and Pittsburg County, Oklahoma, also suspended their collection processes.
The center recommends courts and municipalities waive the collection of all court-imposed criminal fees and fines for six months, with no assessments of new debt, and additionally vacate warrants for all unpaid fees and fines. It also recommends that courts ensure interest does not accrue for this timeframe and no liens be placed on housing.
In Kansas City, there will still be options for those who weren’t able to take advantage of #ResolveIt. Pfannenstiel said any time someone is unable to pay their fines, they can request to do community service in lieu of paying. The court has a lot of resources to help people facing warrants and fines, and it is interested in helping those who fear the court system resolve their cases.
Garret-Williams said she hopes the court does it again, as the pandemic isn’t over yet and others could use it.
“It was such a relief to take care of those warrants,” she said. “I can drive without being worried about getting pulled over and going to jail.”