It started as a speeding ticket.
On May 25, Jerry Keller was pulled over in Kansas City for driving too fast.
The 57-year-old from Independence, Mo., paid his fine.
Included in the court costs that resulted from that fine was a $3 surcharge paid to the Missouri Sheriffs’ Retirement Fund.
Hundreds of cities across Missouri collect the $3 surcharge, despite the fact that sheriffs don’t enforce municipal laws or otherwise participate in the dispensation of justice in municipalities. The charge is not collected in the city of St. Louis or in municipalities in St. Louis County. But it is collected by many in surrounding communities in St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties.
For several years, the $3 surcharge has been the subject of a politically charged dispute involving all three branches of Missouri government. This dispute was the subject of a five-part series of columns called “A Toll on Justice” published in the Post-Dispatch in March.
Dozens of cities have refused to collect the fee since the Missouri Supreme Court added it to the official list of municipal court charges in 2013. Municipal judges in those cities argue that the fee is an unconstitutional “sale of justice” that makes it harder for poor people to have access to the courts.
Such fees, applied for all sorts of reasons in Missouri courts, add up. And there are people in Missouri prisons right now sent there for violating probation by not being able to afford to pay off the court costs applied in their cases.
A week before Keller got a speeding ticket in Kansas City, Daven Fowler got one, too. The 20-year-old paid his fine. Now Keller and Fowler want their money back. On Aug. 3, the two men filed a class-action lawsuit in Jackson County seeking to declare the $3 surcharge for sheriffs’ pensions unconstitutional in any municipal court that applies it to various civil and criminal offenses.
“It is unlawful, inequitable and unjust under Missouri’s Constitution for Defendant to collect and retain $3 surcharges against Plaintiffs and the Class for municipal infractions,” argues the lawsuit, filed by attorney Brian Madden of Wagstaff & Cartmell and the law firm of McGonagle Spencer & Gahagan.
If the lawsuit were to be successful, every Missouri resident who has paid the $3 surcharge in a municipal court case since 2013 would be due a refund.
Frank Vatterott will be watching the case carefully.
The longtime municipal judge in Overland has been fighting the sheriffs’ retirement fund over the $3 surcharge since the Missouri Supreme Court chose to apply it to municipalities. That came after the sheriffs were unsuccessful in getting the Missouri Legislature to change the law, and state Sen. Mike Parson — now the lieutenant governor — threatened the court’s budget unless it changed its interpretation of the old law.
Twice the court’s administrative body had determined that the law which created the surcharge didn’t apply it to municipalities. But after Parson’s threat in a 2013 Senate hearing, the court changed its mind.
Vatterott doesn’t mince words when describing what he sees as a full-blown conspiracy to prop up the retirement fund of elected sheriffs on the backs of poor people.
“I believe that the evidence is clear — the Supreme Court was bullied into imposing this surcharge, which it had previously rejected twice, in order to get its apportionment,” Vatterott says. “The Supreme Court is our final refuge from unconstitutional acts of the Legislature or of the executive branch. Here, the (court) is a willing partner of the branches of government it is sworn to guard us against — it allowed itself to be bullied into a sweet deal for elected sheriffs, whose pensions have been dramatically increased on the back of poor people faced with municipal traffic tickets in towns across our state.”
Vatterott himself filed a lawsuit in 2013 to try to get the surcharge overturned, but it was tossed by the Missouri Court of Appeals, which said the plaintiffs in the case lacked standing to bring it. In the court’s ruling, it compared the failed lawsuit to a successful one against red-light cameras in the state, noting that in that case the plaintiffs had paid the fine and sought a refund.
Attorneys for the Missouri Sheriffs’ Retirement Fund have not yet responded to the lawsuit and didn’t answer emails seeking comment. In the past couple of months, the retirement fund has been filing open records requests from cities that have refused to pay it.
One way or another, it seems, the Missouri courts are going to have to tackle this issue.
“This new suit attacks the surcharge directly, as violating the sale of justice clause of the Missouri Constitution,” Vatterott says. “It is, in my opinion, a better method of attack for this insidious tax hoisted on citizens.”