JEFFERSON CITY • The author of a Missouri Senate bill that would lower limits on the amount of revenue municipalities can keep from traffic fines said Wednesday he wanted to keep that cap at 10 percent of a city’s general operating revenue, despite higher amounts being discussed in the state Capitol.
House members have yet to decide where to set the cap in their version of the bill, and have been considering caps of 10 percent, 15 percent and 20 percent.
But Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, said his aim was to force cities to stop relying on revenue from municipal courts and compel them either to merge or disincorporate if they were not able to get their residents to agree to tax increases to pay for services.
Schmitt reiterated those comments in a House committee hearing on his bill Wednesday, saying that municipalities in the St. Louis area were “destroying the trust” people should have in local government. About 75 people, most of them St. Louis-area politicians and lobbyists, packed a small House hearing room and heard about a dozen people testify on Schmitt’s bill.
Schmitt said the 10 percent cap was needed to halt the growth in municipal ticket revenue. According to figures he distributed, overall traffic fines and fees collected by cities had grown 27.7 percent over the last five years.
“I don’t think you have to be a rocket scientist to realize we have a problem,” he said. “As the economy has gone downward ... these cities are grabbing for more and more revenue.”
Marius Johnson-Malone, who has studied St. Louis County’s municipal courts for a nonprofit called Better Together, echoed the need to set the cap at 10 percent. Cities with ticket revenue between 10 percent and 20 percent “are really not acting in good faith,” Johnson-Malone said. “The current system is broken.”
The Senate-passed bill would gradually lower the cap to 10 percent in urban areas. However, a 20 percent cap would apply in some rural areas — specifically in fourth-class cities and villages situated outside the state’s first-class counties or charter counties.
Ex-St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch told the committee that many municipalities were using their police departments to raise revenue, and officers were being told to write tickets “or their well-deserved raise or their job will be at risk.”
St. Ann Mayor Michael G. Corcoran said that he supported reforms to the municipal court system but that the critics of his city’s ticketing operation had it wrong. The city’s motives are to keep the public safe, he said.
If municipalities are forced out of business by the law, he asked, will St. Louis County have the resources to step in and stop crime?
Municipal courts in St. Louis County have drawn national attention since Michael Brown’s killing on Aug. 9 by a Ferguson police officer. In a report last year, a nonprofit legal group, ArchCity Defenders, said some cities violated the “fundamental rights of the poor” by saddling people with heavy fines for petty offenses and jailing them when they couldn’t pay.
A Department of Justice report issued March 4 detailed a pattern of civil rights abuse by Ferguson police and courts. And a series of Post-Dispatch stories showed how municipalities and an elite club of lawyers tightly control a system that pours money to municipalities and lawyers. The newspaper found cases of attorneys routinely taking turns in different courts as judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, raising questions about how they can be impartial.
Scott Douglass, mayor of Clarkson Valley and president of the St. Louis County Municipal League, said the cities “are not against change.” But he cautioned against a law that would have “unintended consequences.”
“We, like you, believe the problem of generating revenue from traffic fines is not appropriate,” he said. “But at the same time we want to make sure whatever is done … doesn’t inhibit law enforcement or citizen safety.”
While no consensus emerged on where to set the cap, witnesses and legislators voiced agreement on another key reform: eliminating the “failure to appear” charge in connection with minor traffic offenses.
Schmitt has filed a separate bill eliminating that charge for traffic offenses, and he said he would encourage the House to incorporate the provision into his bill.
Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters and chairman of the House Civil and Criminal Proceedings Committee, said the panel would probably vote Tuesday on a substitute version of Schmitt’s bill. The bill then would need approval from another committee before moving to the House floor.
Differences between the House and Senate bills would have to be reconciled before a bill was sent to the governor’s desk. The legislative session ends May 15.
SUPREME COURT HEARING
Across the street from the Capitol, the Missouri Supreme Court also heard arguments Wednesday in a case about the law limiting the amount of revenue municipalities can raise in municipal court.
Jane Dueker, a lawyer for the Missouri Municipal League, argued that a provision in the law that suspends a municipal court’s jurisdiction on traffic cases if the municipality does not file a financial report on time with the state auditor is unconstitutional.
“The constitution says if the municipality provides a municipal judge, then they get to have it,” she said. “Constitutionally you can’t pull that out of there because they are entitled ... to have that municipal judge.”
An attorney with the state attorney general’s office argued that the municipalities just wanted “control of a judicial branch of government” for the purpose of raising money.
“That’s what this case is about,” said Ronald R. Holliger, senior counsel for the attorney general.
The attorney general’s office gave part of its time to law student Marie DeFer from St. Louis University. She urged the judges not to remove the state’s power to suspend a municipal court’s jurisdiction over traffic cases for failing to send financial paperwork to the state auditor.
“That loss of jurisdiction is the enforcement tool, and that makes the (law limiting revenue from traffic cases) meaningful,” she said.
The Supreme Court said it would take the arguments under advisement.
The Senate bill is SB5.