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Debate Begins On Traffic Revenue Limits In Missouri Legislature

(via Flickr/davidsonscott15)

Legislation to cap the amount of revenue from traffic fines cities and towns in Missouri can include in their budgets is getting early attention in this year's regular session.

Under the current law, known as the Macks Creek law, local municipalities can receive up to 30 percent of their income from speeding tickets and other traffic citations.  That would drop to 10 percent if the proposed measure becomes law. 

The original law was passed by the General Assembly in 1995 and named for Macks Creek, a now unincorporated town near the Lake of the Ozarks.  It was once known as the state's most notorious speed trap, with more than three-quarters of its city budget coming from traffic fines.

Senate committee hears the 10 percent proposal

Former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch testified in favor of Senate Bill 5 Wednesday before the senate committee on local government.

"We are not supposed to be in the business, in law enforcement, of generating revenue for the cities," Fitch said.  "I think, personally, municipal courts should be able to recover their costs, but they shouldn't be profit generators.  It's not a business; you're not supposed to be able to buy chairs for the mayor's office with traffic ticket fines."

The bill's sponsor, state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, told the committee that several small towns in Missouri, especially in St. Louis County, are using traffic tickets as "profit generators."  He used the town of St. Ann as an example.

"St. Ann never had a speed trap on (Interstate) 70 when Northwest Plaza was the biggest mall in the country," Schmitt said. "They do now; that mall is demolished."

Schmitt continued, "To put that into further context, just six years ago, St. Ann wrote about 2,000 tickets; now they write over 9,000 tickets a year.  Six years ago, St. Ann had about $500,000 of revenue derived from traffic tickets and fines; now they derive $3.5 million from that same source."

Schmitt says the practice of "taxation by citation" has created a breakdown of trust between residents and local court systems and has fostered hardship for many people, particularly African Americans, who wind up missing court dates and being jailed as a result. The bill is also one of several proposals made in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson.

"Somebody (gets) a speeding ticket...life happens, somebody misses that court date, an additional charge of failure to appear will often be issued, doubling and tripling that fine," Schmitt said.  "(Then) going back and forth to work, if there's another minor infraction that they're picked up for, they will go to prison until the next court date, likely unable to afford a lawyer, jeopardizing that person's employment (and) housing."

City officials, including a few mayors such as Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy, testified against the bill.

"You have money that comes in, but it goes right back out," Murphy said.  "It goes back out to different funds that are needed…I wouldn't want to see (the) battered women's fund cut; I wouldn't want to see police training cut."

Vinita Park Mayor James McGee testified that his town does not jail anybody for being unable to pay a traffic fine.

"If they can't pay their fine, we also have a monthly payment plan that they can get on," McGee said.  "We have community service; if they're poor and they can't pay, do the community service, because it's a privilege to drive a car.... If you're speeding, stop speeding."

​Vinita Park is not among the group of municipalities being sued by Attorney General Chris Koster for violating the Macks Creek law, but it borders Vinita Terrace, which is named in the lawsuit.  The other towns being sued are Normandy, Velda Village Hills, Hillsdale, Uplands Park, Moline Acres and Bellerive Acres. As of Thursday, Koster added:  Hanley Hills, Kinloch, Velda City and Calverton Park. Six cities have been dropped from Koster's suit:  Beverly Hills, Breckenridge Hills, Pagedale, Pasadena Park, Mackenzie and Crystal Lake Park.

A Senate committee vote on the bill has not been held yet.

Russell:  courts should not be revenue generators

The principles behind Schmitt's bill also appear to have the backing of the Missouri Supreme Court.

Mary Russell
Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Russell

Chief Justice Mary Russell gave her State of the Judiciary address on Thursday before a joint session of the House and Senate. She said that courts should help people resolve legal issues instead of acting as "revenue generators." Russell also said that the Supreme Court had recently adopted a new rule, requiring municipal judges to give people more time to pay fines if they can prove they are unable to pay them.

Here's a passage of Russell's speech that addresses the issue:

Municipal divisions play an important role in enforcing local laws, and they handle more than two-thirds of all cases filed in our state courts. For many people, the municipal divisions are the first and only contact they have with the court system. And, as we all know, first impressions can be lasting impressions. From a local municipal division to the state Supreme Court, Missouri’s courts should be open and accessible to all. Courts should primarily exist to help people resolve their legal disputes. If they serve, instead, as revenue generators for the municipality that selects and pays the court staff and judges – this creates at least a perception, if not a reality, of diminished judicial impartiality. Courts must give consideration to those unable to pay any fine that is imposed. To that end, the Supreme Court recently adopted a new rule – that if people demonstrate they are unable to pay a fine, municipal judges will be required to give them more time to pay it. We in the judiciary are aware that you, too, will be giving thoughtful consideration to improving the municipal divisions. It is important that those municipal divisions that are not working well do not overshadow the many divisions around our state that do.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.