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It’s a disturbing story that many believe is widespread: cash-strapped municipalities extorting money from African-Americans.

Several plaintiffs allege in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday that 13 towns outside St. Louis County are targeting Black residents for traffic stops in a revenue-generating scheme, NBC News reports.

The attorneys for the 13 plaintiffs argue that the municipalities are operating a debtor’s prison.

“We’ve had people that have spent weeks in jails for traffic violations and not only does that run afoul of the expectations we would have for that kind of violation but it runs afoul of the Constitution,” attorney Blake Strode said, according to NBC.

He added: “No one’s arguing that there shouldn’t be any punishment for these things, but what we can’t do is hold people in jail because they’re too poor to pay a debt.”

The lawsuit alleges that the towns have conspired to target Black drivers who are too poor to pay their traffic fines. When they don’t pay, the courts add more fines on top of the original. That allows them ultimately to confiscate wages or property if individuals can’t pay.

This lawsuit comes on the heels of a U.S. Justice Department report on its probe of the Baltimore Police, which found widespread constitutional violations and routine use of excessive force against African-Americans.

In 2015, the DOJ found that the Ferguson, Missouri, police and courts operated a similar revenue-making scheme that targeted Black residents.

NBC noted that while Ferguson yielded to federal oversight, other towns in St. Louis County are not subject to similar oversight.



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