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Nixon calls for improving Missouri courts after DOJ report on Ferguson

Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

Gov. Jay Nixon has sketched out what he calls "clear areas for improvement" in Missouri's municipal courts in the wake of the U.S. Justice Department's blistering report on the police and city courts in Ferguson.

So far Nixon is focusing primarily on beefing up the 1995 Macks Creek law, which limits cities and towns to basing no more than 30 percent of their budgets on traffic fines. It was named for the former town of Macks Creek, in Camden County, which received more than 75 percent of its budget from traffic fines and was considered to be Missouri's most notorious speed trap.

In an address to the Missouri Bar Friday, Nixon described the municipal courts of Ferguson and other towns that use police and courts to generate revenue as having gone awry.

"The Department of Justice's report lays out in stark, exhaustive detail the practices of a system that too often profits from its most vulnerable citizens," Nixon said. "A citizen arrested, jailed, and fined over $1,000 for two parking tickets she received in 2007...a 67-year old woman arrested after failing to pay a trash removal citation. And in the same court, others get off scot-free."

Nixon expressed support for legislation passed last month to cap the amount of revenue local governments can use from traffic fines to 10 percent in urban and suburban areas and 20 percent for rural Missouri.  He also recalled his own involvement with the legal battle over Macks Creek's practices when he was Missouri's attorney general.

"I sued them because, among other things, they weren't remitting their (traffic citation) money to the state, the crime victims compensation fund, and whatnot," Nixon said.  "As they would say (on) Seinfeld, 'yadda, yadda, yadda, Macks Creek doesn't exist anymore!'"

Nixon's speech to the Missouri Bar did not contain many specifics about how to address the Justice Department report's findings, but he did detail his "clear areas for improvement." Nixon said:

  • Whether in a municipal court or before the Missouri Supreme Court, a defendant must be guaranteed due process. This means that like any other court, penalties must be proportional to the offense.  Defendants must have adequate notice of the charges against them and the consequences of those charges, and have an opportunity to be heard before an arrest warrant is issued or further punitive steps are taken.
  • Municipal courts cannot be used to create modern day debtors’ prisons. Nixon said he was pleased to see the Missouri Supreme Court moving to amend its operating rule 37 to require consideration of an indigent defendants’ ability to pay, but there is much more to be done. Municipal courts should develop practical alternatives to incarceration and fines, like community service, that take into account the financial circumstances of the defendant and the nature of the infraction.
  • Municipal courts should also provide greater access for people to appear. With just a few sessions per month, the DOJ found that in Ferguson, the court once considered over 2,000 offenses in one sitting.   A single mom who works the night shift at a nursing home is going to have a hard time getting to court if she’s scheduled to work on the one night a month court is held.
  • Finally, municipal courts must be fully transparent in their operations both towards the accused and the public at large. This means adopting written court procedures and publicly accessible information regarding court-related fines and fees, and accurate reporting on court activities.

"It's a system gone awry if you're relying on using police and court systems as both a collection agency as well as a revenue generator…that is not their purpose," Nixon told reporters after his speech.  "Their purpose is to enforce the law, help keep things safe, (and) enforce ordinances and whatnot."
Nixon would not comment on whether he thinks the Ferguson Police Department should be disbanded, as called for by St. Louis-area senators Jamilah Nasheed and Maria Chappelle-Nadal.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

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