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Municipal court reform advocates say using legal system has been a success

Protesters outside St. Louis County headquarters on Feb. 2, 2015 call for reforms of the municipal court system.
File photo by Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

About a year ago, Missouri attorney General Chris Koster sued 13 municipalities in St. Louis County who weren’t complying with the state’s law on traffic revenue.

It was one of a series of cases at the state and local level filed against cities for the way they operate their municipal courts. And the architects of the strategy say it's working.

"The hope was that the litigation could tell the story of what was really happening in these courts, and could at least get people talking about it, and put pressure on places to reform themselves," said Brendan Roediger, the head of the Civil Litigation clinic at Saint Louis University's law school.

Roediger and his colleagues filed suit against 11 cities for charging illegal court fees. Three of them — Beverly Hills, Fenton and Velda City — agreed to stop the practice. 

Koster sued a total of 18 cities that failed to submit the documentation required by what was known as the Macks Creek law, which limited the amount of revenue cities could make from traffic fines and fees. Most eventually complied, and Koster dismissed the remaining cases after a law passed that revamped what revenue the cities could get from traffic fines.

The Arch City Defenders, whose white paper on municipal court practices got renewed attention after the death of Michael Brown in August 2014, has two federal cases pending against municipalities for jailing people who could not pay cash bail or fines. Jenningsand Velda City have already settled similar lawsuits.

Roediger, at SLU, said he could file a lawsuit against every municipality in St. Louis County if he had the resources.

"We have a long, long way to go. I don’t think that we’re on the verge of fixing this problem, but I think we’re heading in the right direction," he said.

A working group appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court will present its final ideas in March. A second group, composed mostly of municipal court officials, has also pushed voluntary reforms to the system. They include recalling old arrest warrants and voluntarily eliminating cash bail.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.