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Missouri Supreme Court tosses out parts of 2015 law for traffic fines, fees in St. Louis County

File photo | Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Bel-Ridge is among the St. Louis County municipalities that challenged the 2015 law.

The Missouri Supreme Court capped the amount of money cities can take in from traffic fines and fees at 20 percent statewide in a ruling issued Tuesday.  It also throws out parts of a law that was the Missouri legislature's main attempt to deal with the aftermath of Michael Brown's 2014 death in Ferguson.

Investigations following Brown's shooting by a police officer revealed the extent to which small cities in St. Louis County relied on their municipal courts to fund city services, with the burden falling heavily on poor defendants of color.

Former Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill in 2015 that reduced the amount of money cities could take in from traffic fines and fees from 30 percent to 20 percent. It went even further in St. Louis County — setting the cap there at 12.5 percent.

The Supreme Court ruling calls that a violation of the Missouri Constitution because the lower limit applies only to St. Louis County.
Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, shepherded the legislation in 2015 and said he was okay with the 20 percent limit being implemented statewide.

“The level that we started at was 30 percent. We wanted to be as aggressive as possible to curb the misdeeds that were going on. We wanted the statewide down to 12.5 percent, but that wasn’t feasible,” he said.

State Treasurer Eric Schmitt, who sponsored the bill when he was a Republican senator from St. Louis County, said in a written statement that while he was disappointed the court struck down the lower limit for St. Louis County,  the “court’s upholding of the majority of the law marks a significant victory for efforts to eliminate these abusive taxation by citation schemes that hit the poor especially hard.”

The state's high court also struck down the bill's requirements that cities in St. Louis County have, among other things, an accredited police department and certain levels of insurance. Cities could have faced a takeover if they didn't comply. The judges, however, left in place new standards for municipal courts, including limiting fines, fees and court costs to a total of $300 and preventing cities from jailing people simply because they couldn‘t pay.

Pat Kelly, the executive director of the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis, said the cities didn't oppose making reforms. In fact, he said, the Municipal League had offered several suggestions that became a part of what's commonly known as Senate Bill 5.

“We weren't against all aspects of Senate Bill 5. There was no doubt that for political reasons they were trying to inflict these requirements on St. Louis County alone, and that just isn’t fair."

The mayors of Cool Valley, Bel-Ridge and Bel-Nor — three of the 12 cities that challenged the law in court — didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. But Normandy mayor Patrick Green said he and the 11 other local officials who sued were willing to work with lawmakers to help improve the way cities operate.

“This was a rush,” he said. “If we’re going to work together to solve concerns that legislators and elected officials at a municipal level have, it should be that we stand on common ground, and take our time to address what is true about the problem and how to correct it.”

Cornejo said he believes the new limits, even though they’re a bit higher than he wanted, will help rebuild the trust between the cities and their residents

“If you want to provide services to your taxpayers, then you need to be willing to go to your taxpayers and ask if they’re willing to pay for those services, and not just rely on catching people driving through your municipalities,” he said.

But Thomas Harvey, the executive director of the legal advocacy group ArchCity Defenders, asserts that setting limits doesn’t get at the core of the problems made public by Brown’s death.

“It was an attempt to frame this entire problem as the rational act of people who were only concerned about raising revenue,” Harvey said. “Some of these places wouldn’t have to make money off of their courts, or this much money off their courts, in order to see a reason to continue to police poor people and black people in this region.”

Read the Missouri Supreme Court ruling here:

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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