Municipal court proposal draws crowd to Missouri Senate hearing

JEFFERSON CITY • Not all municipal courts are alike, a Missouri Senate committee was told on Wednesday.

Some cities jail repeat traffic offenders who can’t pay big fines; others put people on payment plans.

Some, like tiny Fordland in Webster County, draw as much as 90 percent of their revenue from traffic tickets and fees; in Kansas City, court revenue tops out at about 2 or 3 percent of the budget.

One man, who said he was handcuffed and jailed for talking in Bel-Ridge’s courtroom in St. Louis County, described the system as a “Soviet-style gulag.” A senator from Christian County said his rural courtrooms were “more like Andy in Mayberry,” referring to the popular Andy Griffith television show of the 1960s.

The Senate Jobs, Economic Development and Local Government Committee heard more than two hours of testimony Wednesday on a bill that would allow municipalities to fund a maximum of 10 percent of their budgets from revenue generated from traffic tickets.

Currently, ticket income is capped at 30 percent of a city’s budget. Anything more is supposed to be sent to the state to spend on education.

A lower limit is needed, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, because some courts have turned into “debtors’ prisons” that are “pushing the poorest among us further into poverty.”

He said people who couldn’t pay tickets for minor infractions ended up missing court dates, which saddles them with additional costs and warrants that jeopardize their jobs and housing.

Tim Fitch, the former St. Louis County police chief, was among the harshest critics of municipal courts in St. Louis County. He said some cities used them as “profit-generators,” telling officers to write more tickets to fund their salaries.

“We are not supposed to be in the business, in law enforcement, of generating revenue for cities,” Fitch said.

Witnesses who supported the bill ranged across the political spectrum, from Sarah Rossi of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri to Bill Hennessey, a co-founder of the St. Louis Tea Party Coalition.

Opponents said the bill’s supporters were misinformed.

Vinita Park Mayor James McGee said his city followed “best practices,” which include putting violators who can’t pay fines on payment plans and letting them do community service.

Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy said her city policed speeding to protect residents on heavily traveled roads.

“It’s not a money grab when you post in your city, ‘Don’t speed,’ ” she said.

The committee took no action on the bill. Schmitt said he hoped to work on mechanisms that would make the revenue cap more enforceable.

He also wants to clarify the definition of which fines and fees count as revenue under the cap.

A nonprofit legal team, ArchCity Defenders, brought attention to the municipal court problems in an August report. The issue gained prominence after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

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Source: STL Today