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Missouri Supreme Court Eases Penalty For Not Paying Court Fines

Arch City Defenders executive director Thomas Harvey speaking during a 2014 meeting of the Ferguson Commission.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

The Missouri Supreme Court issued anew rule two weeks ago that eases the financial burden on poor people facing big fines in municipal courts. The new rule should reduce the number of people who spend time in jail for failing to pay fines. 

The order is a partial response to thepleas from professors at Saint Louis University School of Law and theArchCityDefenderswho called for changes in the rule last fall. The reform was a leading demand of the Ferguson protesters.

The revised rule allows indigent defendants to pay fines on the installment plan. Defendants who intentionally refuse to pay fines could be jailed for 30 days. But the new rule says that if “the judge finds that the failure to pay the fine is excusable, the judge shall enter an order allowing the defendant additional time for payment, or may … waive the collection of all or part of any unpaid portion of the fine.”

Thomas Harvey, head of ArchCity Defenders said he was glad to have received a significant part of what his group requested. “As always, it is part of what we asked for and I am glad the Court took this important step to alleviate the burdens these fines place on poor people,” he wrote in an email.

Harvey had requested that the state Supreme Court order judges to proportion their fines based on the financial resources of the defendant.

Frank J. Vatterott, a veteran municipal judge in Overland who heads the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Commission, opposed the proportional fines.  He thought it was a violation of equal protection to fine poor people less for a law violation, such as an assault, than a wealthy person.

Karen Tokarz, a professor at the Washington University School of Law, called the new rule "an excellent effort by the Missouri Supreme Court to address a growing concern about the operation of municipal courts and the harsh economic impact on many individuals."

She suggested that "the next step is to develop procedures for courts to use in assessing an individual's financial resources.  Other municipal court problems to be addressed by the Supreme Court, the municipalities, or the Missouri legislature include the need for caps, community service alternatives, uniformity of fines across municipalities and the elimination of standing detention orders without judicial findings."

The new Supreme Court rule 37.65 was issued by the full state Supreme Court over the signature of Chief Justice Mary Russell.  It was issued on Dec. 23, but has not been previously reported. The rule goes into effect July 1, 2015.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.