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At the heart of nearly every debate over criminal justice reform these days is one word:

Money.

And so it was last month in the St. Louis County courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Brian May.

At issue was what to do when a defendant misses a court date.

“Our system kind of collapses if people don’t show up,” May said.

He was hearing arguments in a class-action lawsuit brought by attorney Rob Schultz against the county over the long-standing practice of the municipal court in St. Louis County to attach a $75 court cost to cases as a penalty for those who have missed a court date and had a warrant issued for their arrest.

Schultz’s clients, John Cibulka and John Kohl, had each missed court dates in cases a few years ago. Eventually, they showed up, accepted a plea bargain on traffic offenses, pleaded guilty and paid their fines and court costs.

Now they want their $75 back, and Schultz wants every similarly situated defendant to get his or her money back from the county. Why?

There is nothing in the law that allows the fee to be charged as a court cost.

“There are ways in our system to handle these things,” Schultz said in court. “But this is not one of them.”

This has been a difficult lesson for the Missouri courts, and the various municipalities and counties that they serve, to learn.

The lesson started five years ago, after the Ferguson protests.

Underlying the angst of so many residents of north St. Louis County and the entire St. Louis region who took to the streets was that the courts in many of the nearly 90 municipalities in the county were using their police departments as tools to raise revenue, first in traffic tickets and fines, and then in failure-to-appear warrants and more fines, that eventually left too many people jailed for too long on what started as minor offenses.

The lawsuits filed by nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders helped highlight the damage that policing on the backs of the poor did to local communities. One of the lawsuits — against the city of Ferguson — is ongoing.

There is a better way, the Missouri Legislature said in 2015 when it passed then-Sen. Eric Schmitt’s Senate Bill 5 to limit the amount of ticket revenue that could be raised to prop up ailing city budgets.

Then came this year’s Missouri Supreme Court ruling in the George Richey and John Wright cases that reached a similar conclusion regarding court costs. In that case, affecting mostly rural counties, the court said that charges for jail time are not court costs and thus could not be used to force defendants back to court, and hold the possibility of more jail time over their heads if they couldn’t pay.

Schultz made use of the Richey ruling in his argument against the county, which was seeking summary judgment against Cibulka and Kohl.

“The Supreme Court clearly stated: If (a court cost) is not authorized, it’s not allowed,” Schultz said.

May agreed with him, ruling against St. Louis County in its attempt to stop the lawsuit in its tracks.

That means it’s going forward and the county will now face the possibility of having to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars — or more — to county residents in ill-gotten gains. That’s what happened in several municipalities in the region when attorney John Campbell, with the help of ArchCity Defenders and the St. Louis University Legal Clinics won a series of similar cases.

As Schultz pushes his case forward in St. Louis County, a related case is scheduled for trial in Kansas City in early November. In that case, attorneys for two defendants are seeking the return of $3 fees charged to municipal defendants across the state because the fee went to the retirement fund for county sheriffs, which don’t have a particular court responsibility related to municipal courts.

That fee was approved as a court cost by the Missouri Supreme Court after then Missouri Sen. Mike Parson — now the governor — threatened the court with its budget if it didn’t approve the fee.

At the time, the Office of State Courts Administrator had twice determined the statute applying the $3 charge should not apply to municipal courts.

The issue in both cases is the same:

The courts should not allow themselves to be used as debt collectors for cash-strapped governments, and when they do so improperly, they should be forced to return to defendants the money they paid illegally.

In the end, that is what Schultz wants for his clients.

“I don’t understand why in the post-Ferguson era, (the county) won’t just give the money back,” he said in court. “We all have an understanding here in 2019 that illegal court costs should be returned.”

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