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ST. LOUIS COUNTY • As a gesture of goodwill before a major new municipal reform law takes effect on Friday, thousands of warrants and failure-to-appear charges are being canceled across a number of courts in St. Louis County.

Court officials say it’s important to show they are following the spirit of the law, even if there are still many questions about implementing its changes.

Meanwhile, there’s disagreement on just how far the legislation called Senate Bill 5 goes toward protecting people’s rights in the most problematic municipalities.

One certainty: The answers won’t be known immediately.

New reporting requirements and a lowered cap on court revenue don’t kick in until the next fiscal year for each municipality, starting with those that begin Jan. 1. What could be the biggest obstacle for some cities — meeting a set of minimum standards for government and police operations — carries a three-year deadline. Police departments then have another three years to gain accreditation.

Municipalities have begun preparing, though. Last week about 200 municipal prosecutors, judges and court administrators met at the University of Missouri-St. Louis to talk about how the county’s 81 separate court municipal court systems can uniformly implement changes.

The meeting was closed to the public, and only two attendees agreed to speak that day. But officials have since said that a common sentiment emerged: Officials recognize the need to restore confidence in the courts and believe it can be done through leniency with those who are trying to resolve their tickets.

Jennings, Velda City, Normandy and Ferguson are among the courts that have decided to give people a clean slate, through a combination of dismissing old cases, clearing out warrants, lifting license suspensions and erasing failure-to-appear charges.

“It’s not required (by the legislation), but what we have done is say, ‘Let’s give people a chance to address these issues,’” said Jennifer Fisher, the judge in Normandy. “If they want to resolve their citations, we’re making every effort to help them do that.”

In her court, that means about 10,000 people will see their arrest warrants lifted (although they still must address the underlying ticket) and 5,000 licenses will be reinstated (if the person does not have holds or suspensions from other courts). The prosecutor is reviewing and dismissing some of the oldest cases, and all failure-to-appear charges are being thrown out.

CHANGES IN THE LAW

The most significant element of the legislation is a lowered cap on revenue from traffic tickets: It can now only make up 12.5 percent of a city’s general operating revenue in St. Louis County, and 20 percent elsewhere, down from 30 percent.

Municipalities that fail to submit a timely and accurate report on their finances to the state auditor will immediately lose jurisdiction over their courts. The previous law did little to punish the many courts that ignored the limits.

“That’s the big thing — limiting the amount of revenue,” said Velda City’s judge, Wesley Bell, who is also a City Council member in Ferguson. “If a city can’t keep its lights on without excessive ticketing, they need to be shut down.”

Bell believes it’s unfair, though, to single out St. Louis County with its own revenue limit. Municipalities have hinted they will mount a court challenge to that element of the law.

Notably, the revenue limits apply only to “minor traffic violations” — defined as those that do not result in accident or injury, or more than four points on a person’s driving record. It would not include revenue from tickets for driving with a suspended or revoked license, for example, a frequent violation in St. Louis County that results in 12 license points.

Previously, all traffic cases counted toward the cap.

The law also doesn’t address housing code violations or other nontraffic violations, which represent more than half the charges in some municipalities.

It’s a little-discussed caveat to the new law. There are others, too.

Fines on any minor traffic violation now cannot exceed $300. But fines were rarely that high per citation before. People who faced the steepest fines often received multiple tickets per stop, sometimes for duplicate charges. The new law doesn’t address that.

Officials are now prohibited from issuing an additional charge for people who fail to appear in court, something that used to add hundreds of dollars to people’s fines.

But the law does not address the approximately 490,000 existing failure-to-appear charges, which is why some courts are now taking the extra step of canceling them.

People can still be arrested and jailed for missing court on a minor municipal offense — officials just can’t use incarceration to coerce payment, and defendants must now have a hearing before a judge within 48 to 72 hours. Some courts are planning to have their judges, who are part time, use iPads to hold virtual hearings in order to accomplish the logistical challenge of having that many court sessions.

Thomas Harvey, of the nonprofit ArchCity Defenders legal group, said the law doesn’t have nearly enough procedural protections, and any voluntary order that might come out of the courts themselves wouldn’t be enforceable.

“They’ve shown for at least 50 years that without real supervision they’ll violate the Constitution and jail poor and black people,” he said. If it takes officials from 81 courts gathering to figure out what the law means and how to respond to it, he said, “they make our point ... the real solution is abolishing those courts.”

City and court officials also have complaints. They say the law doesn’t provide enough direction and leaves them with few tools to make sure scofflaws come to court. Matt Conley, St. Ann’s city administrator, said he’s also hesitant to sign an annual affidavit saying revenue reporting is accurate when the definitions for what counts as traffic are still unclear.

“Everybody patted themselves on the back in Jefferson City, but they’ve done absolutely nothing to put the administrative portion in place,” said Conley. “This law takes place Aug. 28, and we’re left trying to figure out the mess. What’s going to happen is things aren’t going to work out like some people believe they are going to work out.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Still, most celebrate the legislation as a good first step.

“It may not be perfect, but it’s a start, and it’s something to build on,” said Bell, who last week issued an order canceling more than 5,000 warrants in Velda City, as well as all of the city’s failure-to-appear charges. For the next month, people will be able to select a court date during the day or night in which they can address their underlying ticket.

And change could still come on a number of fronts.

The Ferguson Commission is finalizing a report with a municipal courts section that recommends a host of changes beyond what is called for in the legislation. Most significantly, it calls for consolidation of the county’s municipal courts.

ArchCity Defenders also is calling for court consolidation and plans to release a proposal asking the Missouri Supreme Court to modify municipal court operating rules to reflect recent federal court settlements it reached with several municipalities over their bail schemes and jailing practices. Now, those settlement agreements are limited to defendants in the suits.

The Missouri Supreme Court also has a working group that is studying additional areas of reform.

It expects to issue a preliminary report on Sept. 1 and a final report on Dec. 1. The committee has not yet publicized its work or said when it will hold public hearings. A member of the working group who was identified as a spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Jeremy Kohler of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.


Changes to the law

By Jeremy Kohler

A law that establishes standards for municipal government, police and courts, and limits the amount that St. Louis County municipalities can keep from fines and fees assessed in traffic cases, goes into effect on Friday.

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MINIMUM STANDARDS

The law establishes minimum standards with which municipalities in St. Louis County must comply within three years: including a cash management and accounting system, proof of controls to prevent misuse of public funds, workers compensation benefits and general liability coverage. Municipal police also must have written policies for pursuits, use of force and collecting police stop data. The law also requires municipalities to have or contract with accredited police departments within six years.

Municipalities must publish on their web sites exactly what steps they took to comply with the minimum standards.

Failure to comply could result in a court ordering the municipality to dissolve, or put a disincorporation question put on the ballot.

The law DOES NOT immediately dissolve any municipalities.

CONFLICTS

The law orders the state supreme court to develop rules regarding conflict of interest for all municipal court prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.

The law DOES NOT establish conflict rules on its own.

FINES AND FEES

The law says four-point moving violations can’t be punished with tickets of more than $300. Courts must offer payment plans or alternatives like community service and must allow payment by mail or electronically. Incarceration cannot be used to coerce payment.

The law DOES NOT prohibit a judge from setting a high cash bail on a minor traffic offense, or limit the total amount of fines per individual. It does not limit fines on more serious offenses or eliminate daily jail or arrest fees. 

FAILURE TO APPEAR

The law says no additional charge of “failure to appear” shall be issued when someone skips a court date for a minor traffic violation.

But this DOES NOT mean someone who skips court won’t be arrested. A defendant can still be picked up on the original offense. And people can still be charged with failure to appear for non-traffic cases.

TRAFFIC COURT

The law says that starting Jan. 1, no more than 20 percent of a municipality’s general operating revenue can come from minor traffic violation cases. In St. Louis county, that percentage is just 12.5 percent. Municipalities must submit detailed reports to the state auditor showing their math or else lose jurisdiction of their court.

The law DOES NOT limit the amount of a town’s general revenue that can come from serious traffic offenses, or non-traffic offenses.

JAILS

Defendants arrested on municipal charges must get a court hearing within three days; two days for defendants on minor traffic cases. If not given that opportunity, they are to be released.

And defendants can’t be jailed to coerce payment of a fine or fee. And no one can be sentenced to jail for a minor traffic offense.

The law DOES NOT prevent someone from being held on high cash bail, or sentenced for more serious offenses. And the law does not establish any municipal court public defender system for poor people who face jail time.

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Jennifer S. Mann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.