Joseph Shapiro

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It may seem like there are a lot more cases of people being shot and killed by police.

Just this week, two African-American men were shot by police: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn. Before that there were Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Laquan McDonald in Chicago and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

But could it be that we are just paying more attention?

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Civil rights lawyers are using a new strategy to change a common court practice that they have long argued unfairly targets the poor.

At issue is the way courts across the country sometimes issue arrest warrants for indigent people when they fall behind on paying court fees and fines owed for minor offenses like traffic tickets. Last year, an NPR investigation showed that courts in all 50 states are requiring more of these payments. Now attorneys are aggressively suing cities, police and courts, forcing reform.

On a night last week when the temperature dropped to 17 degrees, Edward Brown, who's 62 and homeless, slept at the bus stop in front of the Jennings, Mo., city hall in St. Louis County.

"It was cold, very cold," he says. "It's so cold I can't really move so I kept playing with my feet — rubbing 'em, twisting 'em, trying to keep warm."

Brown's troubles started when he tried to fight the city of Jennings, and his story shows how court fines and fees can grow, turning an impoverished person's life upside down.

Drive drunk, drive recklessly, and the state can suspend your driver's license. But many police and motor vehicle administrators worry about a recent trend: A large number of suspensions are for reasons that have nothing to do with unsafe driving.

These reasons include unpaid traffic tickets, falling behind on child support, getting caught with drugs, bouncing checks; or minor juvenile offenses like missing school, using false identification to buy alcohol, or shoplifting.

To understand some of the distrust of police that has fueled protests in Ferguson, Mo., consider this: In 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson — a city of 21,135 people — issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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