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Almost a Year After Ferguson, Missouri Passes Court Reforms

Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday signed a broad municipal court reform bill that will cap court revenue and impose new requirements in an attempt to end what the bill's sponsor called predatory practices aimed at the poor.

By Robert Patrick

Gov. Jay Nixon on Thursday signed a broad municipal court reform bill that will cap court revenue and impose new requirements in an attempt to end what the bill's sponsor called predatory practices aimed at the poor.

Nixon called the reform bill the "most sweeping" municipal court reform bill in state history, and the bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, called it the "most significant."

Schmitt said that the bill would help address a "breakdown of trust" between people and the government and court system. "Healing that," he said, "is something worth fighting for." He said people have the right "not to be thrown in jail because you're a couple of weeks ... late on a fine for having a taillight out."

Moving forward, there would no longer be a system of "taxation by citation," Schmitt said.

The bill goes into effect Aug. 28, but municipalities have three to six years to comply with some provisions.

The bill 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.

"Under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops," Nixon said.

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.

Better Together, a group seeking to eliminate fragmented government in St. Louis County and St. Louis, said in a statement that the bill will cut down on the "criminalization of poverty" and prevent municipalities from balancing "their budgets on the backs of poor citizens."

Nixon signed the bill in the ceremonial courtroom at the Eastern Court of Appeals in the Old Post Office Building in St. Louis.

The issue gained attention after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last August.

In March, a U.S. Department of Justice report criticized Ferguson police and courts, saying that they operated "not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue."

Last year, municipal courts in St. Louis County generated more than $52 million. People who can afford lawyers can get their cases amended to minor infractions. Those in power can call in favors to get their cases dismissed. The poor are sometimes jailed if they miss court or can't afford to pay, a Post-Dispatch review found.

Hours before Nixon signed the law, Rich McClure, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, created last year after the Ferguson protests, commended the legislation, calling it a "first step" toward reforming the courts.

The group plans to make other recommendations in a report due in September.

But on Thursday, Ferguson Commission's Municipal Courts & Governance working group struggled to reach a consensus about what those reforms should look like.

One major point of contention was how judges, prosecutors and city officials should keep their roles separate to prevent conflicts of interest.

The sharpest divisions were between those whose cities and businesses profit directly from the courts and those who represent clients who have become ensnared in them.

A draft of a document written by working group member Pamela Westbrooks-Hodge accused municipal officials, judges, prosecutors and police officers of conspiring to target certain racial and ethnic groups with traffic tickets to raise revenue.

"I have rarely seen a document which succeeded in being as offensive and insulting to as many people in so few words," said Kevin O'Keefe, of the firm Curtis, Heinz, Garrett and O'Keefe.

O'Keefe's firm represents more than 20 cities with lawyers who serve as prosecutors, judges and city attorneys.

But Thomas Harvey, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a firm that represents poor and indigent defendants, said cities routinely budget for revenue from their courts and use the money to sustain themselves.

"The police aren't in the room when the budget is made, and yet they somehow magically write the requisite number of tickets to achieve that revenue level," Harvey said. "How does that happen unless there is not at least some implicit conspiracy among the principals in that group?"

The working group eventually agreed to remove the word conspire from the document, and made other changes to soften the language.

In the end, members agreed on a recommendation that would address the separation of powers issue by prohibiting collusion among city and judicial officials as a violation punishable by law.

The group is also recommending that municipal officials, police officers, prosecutors and judges sign an annual code of ethics that prohibits "targeting or collusion."

Other recommendations include recalling as many as 490,000 existing warrants that have been issued in St. Louis County for failing to appear, treating minor ordinance violations as civil violations and having the Missouri Supreme Court consolidate the area's 81 municipal courts.

The working group will pass on its recommendations to the full Ferguson commission next week -- with a caveat "that there was strong disagreement on some of these."

(c)2015 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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