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Tony's Take

Messenger: After losing $3 court fee, Missouri sheriffs target evictions for their back-door tax

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Last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court pulled the rug out from under the Missouri Sheriff’s Retirement System. A unanimous court found that the $3 fee that was being charged in Missouri court cases to pad the retirement of sheriffs was unconstitutional.

The fee, and others like it, was added to court costs by the Missouri Legislature, seeking funding sources other than general revenue. As a result, the people who come in contact with the courts — most of them poor — pay a back-door tax. This is a problem all across the country, with poor people often being threatened with jail time, or actually incarcerated, over their inability to pay the rising fines and fees that often have no connection to their original offense.

The ruling, which found that the fee was an unconstitutional “sale of justice” was a long-time coming. The fee’s existence had been contested almost since its inception in 1983. By October, 2021, the retirement system was preparing for Plan B. It hired four lobbyists, including Andy Blunt, son of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, to help it find a new funding source.

This month, Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, revealed the retirement system’s plans for future funding: Poor people. Bernskoetter has filed Senate Bill 1054, which repeals the unconstitutional $3 fee and replaces it with a $50 fee sheriff’s offices will collect during eviction proceedings. The fee will presumably be collected from landlords to begin with, but they will in some way pass those costs on to the people they are trying to evict. Bernskoetter did not return a call seeking comment.

The bill, were it to become law, would be a gold mine for the Sheriff’s Retirement System, especially with evictions in the state’s two biggest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, having been on hold during much of the pandemic.

Frank Vatterott, a St. Louis lawyer and former municipal judge who has spent years battling the $3 fee, sees the bill as more of the same: rural sheriffs seeking to pad their retirements on the backs of poor people in Missouri’s cities.

“The crime is the same as with the court fee,” Vatterott says. “People who are seeking to evict tenants are not all bad people. But to get a nonpaying tenant evicted, they have to contribute to a retirement fund for the elected sheriff. One can’t kick out a delinquent renter without a court order authorizing an eviction.”

It’s early in the legislative session, so it’s hard to say whether Bernskoetter’s bill will gain traction. But there’s no doubt the Sheriff’s Retirement System will need an infusion of cash. The loss of the $3 fee will erase future revenue, but the underlying court case has also received a preliminary class action certification in an attempt to recover past payments of the $3 fee.

That could end up costing the retirement fund a significant amount of money.

Vatterott doesn’t oppose the sheriffs’ intent to increase their retirement. He just doesn’t like the courts, and specifically the poor people who can’t afford to pay such fees, identified as the target for funding. Therein lies the difficulty with attempts to reform rising fines and fees, not just in Missouri, but across the country. The reason the sheriffs turned to the courts for fees to begin with is that in a low-tax state like Missouri, there is rarely enough general revenue to go around. Sheriffs are a powerful political lobby, but they don’t want to have to stand in line with schoolchildren, and teachers, and road contractors, and hospitals and other special interests fighting for a piece of the state’s limited budget pie.

“The legislators should pass laws to pay pensions out of general revenue,” Vatterott suggests, “not take advantage of those who must use the sheriffs to evict. It’s disgusting.”

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