Ferguson-Inspired Law Limits Court Fines in Missouri

by | June 20, 2016

By Kurt Erickson

Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation Friday designed to crack down on cities that are making too much money off residents who violate local ordinances.

In the second significant push targeting the state's much-maligned municipal court system, the law will cap how much municipalities can charge for things such as weed or nuisance pet violations.

"It is unconscionable cities would use fine money -- whether from traffic tickets or silly violations like the location of one's barbecue grill or the way their blinds are hanging -- to prop up bloated bureaucracies," said the sponsor of the law, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, a candidate for state treasurer.

"The purpose of municipal courts is to protect our communities, not profit from them," added Nixon, a Democrat.

The measure comes as a follow-up to a push last year to limit how much money cities can generate from traffic stops.

The laws are a response to the 2014 protests in Ferguson that showed municipalities were relying on fines for those who violate local laws to finance city operations.

A 2015 Post-Dispatch analysis found the suburb of Pagedale, for example, handed out 2,255 citations for nuisance types of offenses in 2014, a nearly 500 percent increase from five years ago.

"This bill builds on the landmark reform legislation I called for and signed last year, and will help ensure all our municipal courts operate with fairness, openness and accountability," Nixon said. "Extending these protections to municipal ordinance violations is a commonsense step that will help us continue to restore trust, improve safety, and strengthen our communities," the governor said.

Under the new law, nuisance violations committed within a 12-month period start at $200 for the first citation and rise to $450 for the fourth and subsequent violation.

The law also would limit municipal court judges from serving no more than five municipalities. The change is aimed at attorneys who serve as both judges and as prosecutors in multiple jurisdictions.

The 2015 changes lowered the percentage of traffic-fine revenue cities in St. Louis County could keep to 12.5 percent. Those limits have since been ruled to be unconstitutional.

The ruling left intact the 20 percent cap that applies to municipalities outside of St. Louis County.

One critic of the legislation said the new law does nothing to rebuild and revitalize the communities that have been devastated by exploitative fine and fee practices for years.

"We have seen the African-American community victimized by these practices for too long, and while it's good to see this exploitation is finally being put to a stop, it's even more important that we offer real economic development opportunities to give these communities a fighting chance to grow and prosper," said Rep. Courtney Curtis, D-Ferguson.

Pat Kelly, executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, said community leaders opposed the legislation and questioned whether nuisance ordinances were actually playing a large role in funding and operating municipalities.

He said the law could result in more dilapidated houses and more nuisance calls because municipalities will be limited in their ability to oversee neighborhoods.

"I think that will be the outcome," Kelly said.

He did not rule out a legal challenge to the law.

The measure also attempts to make it easier for voters to disincorporate a municipality by lowering the percentage of resident voters needed to petition to have an election for disincorporation to 25 percent from 50 percent, and also lowering the percentage of votes needed to approve disincorporation to a majority of those voting from 60 percent.

The legislation is Senate Bill 572.

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