Cities Sue to Block Missouri's Ferguson-Inspired Court Reforms

by | November 23, 2015

By Jeremy Kohler

Twelve municipalities in St. Louis County sued the state on Thursday to try to stop what they called an unconstitutional new law that will limit the revenue they can make from fees and fines for minor traffic violations.

Starting in January, a municipality in St. Louis County cannot derive more than 12 1/2  percent of its general operating revenue from minor traffic cases. Outside of St. Louis County, the limit is 20 percent. The previous limit was 30 percent.

The law, which is known as Senate Bill 5, came in response to the unrest after the shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014.

A blistering report by the U.S. Department of Justice in March called the Ferguson municipal court an abusive fundraising tool and urged other courts in St. Louis County to change their ways. Six months later, Gov. Jay Nixon signed what he called the "most sweeping" municipal court reform bill in state history.

The lawsuit, filed in Cole County, argues the Legislature and governor acted unconstitutionally by treating St. Louis County municipalities differently from other areas of the state. The suit says the law violated the state's Hancock Amendment by placing a mandate on a municipality without any mechanism to fund it.

The Missouri Constitution bars special laws that pertain to local areas, said the lawyer representing the municipalities, David H. Pittinsky, of Philadelphia.

Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy said the law has already had a negative effect on her city. Because of a drop in municipal court revenue, she was unable to come up with the city's part of a matching grant for new sidewalks.

She said the law was an example of institutional racism and an attempt to disenfranchise north St. Louis County communities because it targeted struggling communities that are mostly African-American and do not get the support from the state that other areas get.

"Did you see our young people on Mizzou's campus?" she asked reporters at a news conference Thursday. "If those young people had the guts to stand up for what they call institutional racism, then we need to stand up and back them, and that's what we're doing."

Normandy Mayor Patrick Green said the law painted the municipalities with a "broad brush" and said their municipal courts did not engage in abuses but were fairly enforcing laws.

The bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, said he was confident the law would survive the challenge.

He noted that Missouri has many laws on the books that concern just one county.

"I think the Pennsylvania lawyer who filed the suit probably needs to look at the Missouri law, because he's going to find out there are hundreds of statutes in our code that deal with specific challenges in different parts of the state."

As for the Hancock Amendment, he said, there was no reason a municipality had to spend money to comply with the law.

"When you see long lines of people at 11 o'clock at night waiting to get into municipal court, wrapped around a pawnshop, that shocks the conscience," Schmitt said. "And it compelled all of us to do something about it."

The plaintiffs are Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda Village Hills, Glen Echo Park, Bel-Ridge, Bel-Nor, Pagedale, Moline Acres, Uplands Park, Vinita Park, Northwoods and Wellston. Normandy Mayor Patrick Green and Pagedale Mayor Mary Louise Carter are also named as plaintiffs.

The law limits fines, bans failure-to-appear charges for missing a court date and bans jail as a sentence for most minor traffic offenses. It also restricts how much of their general operating revenue cities can raise from court fines and fees.

Cities are required to provide an annual financial report to the state auditor. A municipal judge must certify that the court is complying with required procedures. Police departments must be accredited, and must have written policies on use of force and pursuit. City ordinances must be available to the public. And the Missouri Supreme Court is required to develop rules regarding conflicts of interest in the court system.

Failure to file the reports, turn over excess money or comply with other provisions could trigger the transfer of all pending court cases to circuit court, the loss of sales tax revenue and disincorporation.

In a statement emailed to reporters, Attorney General Chris Koster said the law was enacted to stop municipalities from "abusing citizens through excessive ticketing practices" and said he would "vigorously defend" it.

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