Lessons from Ferguson on Individual Defense Representation as a Tool of Systemic Reform

82 Pages Posted: 1 May 2017 Last revised: 10 May 2017

See all articles by Beth A. Colgan

Beth A. Colgan

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: February 28, 2017


This Article investigates the relationship between the decisions by lawmakers to use municipal and criminal systems to generate revenue and the lack of access to individual defense representation by using the Ferguson, Missouri, municipal court as a case study. The Article chronicles the myriad constitutional rights that were violated on a systemic basis in Ferguson’s municipal court and how those violations made the city’s reliance on the court for revenue generation possible. The Article also documents how the introduction of individual defense representation, even on a piecemeal basis, played a role in altering Ferguson’s system of governance. Using this case study, the Article examines the way litigating individual cases and seeking the enforcement of constitutional rights can alter the cost-benefit of using courts to generate funds by both increasing system expenses and decreasing revenues. Further, individual case litigation alters the cost-benefit of using courts as revenue generators by forcing officials to take a public position on municipal court practices, thereby informing and changing the public debate on crime policy. The Article posits that while individual defense representation will have the greatest systemic effects in systems like Ferguson’s, where there is a significant dependence on the courts for revenue, a pattern of unconstitutional activity, or the targeting of economically vulnerable communities, individual defense representation should be broadly understood as a tool for systemic reform.

The Article also raises theoretical and normative implications from the Ferguson experience regarding whether constitutional criminal procedural rules or local government controls over procedure serve as a better check against systemic abuses, and regarding the repercussions of a politically and doctrinally myopic focus on access to counsel as a solely constitutional, as opposed to political, matter.

Keywords: Economic Sanctions, Fines, Debtors' Prisons, Excessive Fines Clause, Poverty, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Policing

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Colgan, Beth A., Lessons from Ferguson on Individual Defense Representation as a Tool of Systemic Reform (February 28, 2017). William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 58, No. 4, 2017, UCLA School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-15, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2960633 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2960633

Beth A. Colgan (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
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310-825-6996 (Phone)

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