Missouri Legislature Moves Closer to Approving Key Municipal Court Reforms
Sep 17, 2015
St. Peters, MO, (Law Firm Newswire) September 17, 2015 – House vote sends bill back to Senate that would curb caps on city revenue from tickets.
The Missouri House on April 22 voted overwhelmingly in favor of municipal court reforms that would significantly curtail the amount of revenue that cities in St. Louis County can raise from traffic citations. The measure, which House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said would curb “predatory practices when it comes to raising revenue,” was proposed in the wake of national publicity over the county’s court system in connection with a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer’s killing of Michael Brown.
The House approved the bill, Senate Bill 5, in a bipartisan 131-19 vote, and it now returns to the upper chamber. The Senate first acted on the measure after a nonprofit legal group released a report last year that found some cities in St. Louis County violated the “fundamental rights of the poor” by burdening them with stiff fines for petty offenses and then sending them to jail when they could not pay for the fines.
But perhaps the most unflattering statements regarding local court and police practices came on March 4 when a Justice Department report that found that, at least in Ferguson’s case, the police and courts operated “not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.”
“People in communities in St. Louis County and the rest of Missouri have long faced the possibility of injustice or persecution at the hands of the government,” said Charles James, a prominent criminal defense attorney in St. Peters, Missouri. “Now, they are getting confirmation of the suspicion they have had that the government has tried to fleece them as well.”
In the Senate version of the bill, the cap on municipal ticket revenue would be lowered to 10 percent of a city’s budget in urban communities and 20 percent in some rural areas. In the House version of the bill, revenue caps would be changed to 15 percent in St. Louis County — they now stand at 30 percent — and 20 percent in other parts of the state.
The aforementioned discrepancies will have to be worked out in conference between the Senate and House. However, both chambers are in agreement on tough sanctions in the law, including one that would intercept and redirect to schools a city’s sales tax receipts if it exceeds the cap on revenue from citations. In addition, cities would face the prospect of disincorporation should they exceed the caps.
Both chambers also backed the end to the practice of adding “failure to appear” charges whenever an individual misses a court date for a minor traffic offense. Charges such as these often have contributed to the ballooning of fines.
“The Missouri Legislature is responding to the public outcry over how communities in the state allow fines for minor traffic violations to swell to onerous proportions,” James said. “The appearance of modern-day debtors prisons is as highly unseemly as it is unjust.”
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