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Diehl unveils new proposal to reform municipal courts and reduce cities’ reliance on traffic fines

Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

John Diehl famously stated at the start of the 2015 legislative session that the Missouri House would not have a “Ferguson agenda.”

Yet on Wednesday, he unveiled a new proposal to pass one of the so-call agenda’s top priorities: reforming the way municipal courts treat low-income residents who get ticketed for speeding and other traffic violations.

Back in February, the Missouri Senate passed SB 5, which would make substantial revisions to the 20-year-old Macks Creek law. Namely, it would limit the amount of revenue from traffic violations cities and towns in suburban areas could use in their budgets to 10 percent, instead of the current 30 percent. Municipalities in rural areas would be limited to 20 percent.

The Senate version would also authorize the Department of Revenue to seize up to 100 percent of a town’s revenue if it does not hand over excess revenue from traffic fines within 60 days. That town would then face a dissolution vote from its residents.

The new House proposal by Diehl, R-Town and Country, would crack down on municipal judges.  First, it would bar them from issuing "failure to appear" arrest warrants and levying additional fines against someone who doesn’t show up in court for a traffic citation.

“That has the effect of quadrupling the amount of fines that are assessed against an individual and puts them in a hole that they can never get out of,” Diehl said.  “We’re still going to hold the individuals accountable for the underlying charge for which they’ve been accused, but we’re not going to allow municipalities to pile on.”

Other provisions affecting municipal judges and courts include:

  • Holding municipal judges to the same standards as state circuit court judges
  • Requiring courts to factor in a defendant’s ability to pay a traffic fine and court costs
  • Requiring courts to use payment plans, alternative sentences and community service when sentencing someone convicted of a traffic violation
  • Requiring local governments to submit an annual report on the total amount of revenue collected from minor traffic violations, under penalty of perjury

In addition, the state auditor would have the authority to monitor and enforce compliance, including suing cities and towns that violate the revised law.
The measure would also reduce the amount of revenue local governments can budget from traffic fines, although the amount of that reduction has not been decided yet. 

“It’s certainly going to be less than the 30 percent that’s there now,” Diehl said.  “The Senate came in at 10 percent; I think we’re going to be (at) 20 percent or below, but there’s going to be a substantial reduction in the current percentage.”

Diehl says the exact amount will be decided after a public hearing by a House committee on Wed., April 8. 

The new proposal, however, is not being added to any of the House bills filed earlier this year. Instead it will be grafted onto Senate Bill 5 as a time-saving measure because the 2015 session has just a little more than six weeks left. If it passes the House, it would then go back to the Senate, which could either accept the revised version or reject it and set up final negotiations between House and Senate members.

It already has the backing of two Senate Democrats: Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis and Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City.

“A lot of my colleagues, and many of the organizations (that) have been on the ground each and every day fighting for change, I can go back and tell them that the ball is rolling with Senate Bill 5,” Nasheed said.

“No bill is perfect; however, many of the suggestions that Speaker Diehl and others have come up with are things that I can live with,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “Many (municipalities) have been designated as (places) where taxpayers just don’t want to drive through, and we have to change the climate.”

The apparent progress on municipal court reform, however, does not mean that other priorities within the “Ferguson agenda,” including body cameras and use of force rules for police, will make it out of the Missouri House.

“There’s no broader agreement to do those things,” Diehl said. “People are going to disagree, OK, about certain aspects of what should and shouldn’t be done, but we shouldn’t let that stop the things that we do agree on.”

You can follow the latest developments on this and other bills by linking to our legislative bill tracker.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

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