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Messenger: Fines and fees take center stage at Missouri Supreme Court again
Tony's Take

Messenger: Fines and fees take center stage at Missouri Supreme Court again

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Daunte Wright wasn’t on the Missouri Supreme Court docket Tuesday morning, but he might as well have been.

Wright is the 20-year-old Black man killed by a white police officer after a traffic stop on Sunday in a Minneapolis suburb, just as the trial of a different white officer accused of killing George Floyd was nearing its end in another part of that city.

Wright’s death evokes a list of names that keeps getting longer, of Black men and women killed by police in questionable incidents: Floyd, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile. To me, Wright’s death mostly evokes memories of Castile. Both died after traffic stops that were pretextual at best. Both owed the court money because of minor misdemeanor convictions, which had been at least one of the underlying causes of warrants issued at one time or another for their arrest.

Between the ages of 19 and 32, when he died, Castile was pulled over by police at least 46 times. His fines and fees in those cases totaled more than $6,000.

Outstanding warrants weren’t the cause of Castile or Wright’s deaths, anymore than an air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror, but they are a piece of the over-policing pie that disproportionately affects people of color throughout this country.

Much of the nation was introduced to this long-standing problem of the American criminal justice system in the days after Brown’s death in Ferguson, which brought attention to the municipal schemes in north St. Louis County, where Driving While Black was just a pretext to issue fines and fees that fed tax-strapped municipal coffers.

That underlying issue, the proliferation of fines and fees in municipal courts, is what the Missouri Supreme Court was discussing Tuesday morning. The attorneys for Daven Fowler and Jerry Keller, two Kansas City-area men, were asking the court to declare unconstitutional a $3 fee attached to their court cases that pays for the retirement fund of mostly rural Missouri sheriffs who have nothing to do with the administration of justice in Kansas City.

A Toll on Justice: a Post-Dispatch special report

A five-part series examines how all three branches of Missouri government helped prop up the Sheriffs' Retirement Fund by charging a court fee that many judges and legal scholars find unconstitutional. 

The fee has been the subject of legislative and judicial disputes almost since it passed, in 1983, in part because many municipal judges, led first by former Overland Judge Frank Vatterott, refused to charge the fee, saying it was a “sale of justice” in violation of the Missouri Constitution. That was the argument attorney Adam Davis made Tuesday to the judges.

When court costs are too high — and used to fund government functions outside the courts themselves — that creates a barrier to justice for people who can’t afford to make such payments, Davis argued. The Missouri Supreme Court already reached that opinion in the case Harrison v. Monroe County in 1986. Davis asked the court to apply the same philosophy to his case.

The attorney for the Missouri Sheriff’s Retirement Fund, Tim Sear, told the judges that he believes the Harrison case only applies to civil cases, when a plaintiff would have to pay court costs simply to file a petition. That spurred a question from Judge Patricia Breckenridge, whose husband, Bryan, happens to be one of the municipal judges who has refused to collect the $3 fee.

Breckenridge asked Davis what happens after a fee is imposed in a criminal case, such as after a traffic ticket, if it isn’t paid?

Warrants happen, Davis said.

He didn’t mention Daunte Wright or Philando Castile, but he didn’t have to. The judges of the Missouri Supreme Court are familiar with what happens to poor people in Missouri who can’t afford to pay various costs imposed upon them by the court. Warrants are issued. They are arrested, perhaps after a traffic stop. They are hauled before the judge again and threatened with jail if they can’t pay.

Just two years ago, the court ruled unanimously that such a scheme is illegal in the case of jail “board bills,” those charges for time behind bars that are imposed in most rural counties in the state. This case is based on a different statute, but the same concept:

At what point will the courts, in Missouri, Minnesota, or elsewhere, stop allowing themselves to be used as back-door tax collectors for different branches of government?

Jailed for being poor is Missouri epidemic: A series of columns from Tony Messenger

Tony Messenger has written about Missouri cases where people were charged for their time in jail or on probation, then owe more money than their fines or court costs. 

Post-Dispatch Metro Columnist Tony Messenger analyzes the opportunities the new mayor has for success, starting with an infusion of $500 million from the federal government, and a flipped Board of Aldermen.

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