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Missouri Supreme Court hears arguments over a 2015 law to cap revenue from court fines

A large crowd turned out in November, 2015 at the Missouri Court of Appeals inside the Old Post Office building in downtown St. Louis to address a work group that the Missouri Supreme Court appointed to review municipal courts and suggest reforms.
Wiley Price
St. Louis American
A large crowd turned out in November, 2015 at the Missouri Court of Appeals inside the Old Post Office building in downtown St. Louis to address a work group that the Missouri Supreme Court appointed to review municipal courts and suggest reforms.

Should Missouri legislators have singled out St. Louis County in a 2015 court-reform law that capped the amount of revenue its 90 municipalities could raise in court fines and fees?

That was the question before the Missouri Supreme Court Wednesday, the latest twist in litigation over a 2015 law that limits the amount of revenue St. Louis County municipalities can collect from court fines to no more than 12.5% of their entire revenue stream.

But for the rest of the state’s cities and towns, the law set the limit at 20%.

A dozen St. Louis County municipalities filed a lawsuit soon after, and the Supreme Court agreed in 2017 that the special law for those municipalities was unconstitutional.

Currently, the whole state must abide by the 20% cap.

The bill came as a response to the 2014 outcry in Ferguson against abusive municipal court practices. The U.S. Department of Justice found that Ferguson’s police department and municipal court had intentionally worked together to increase the city’s revenue through fines and traffic tickets.

Although the Missouri Supreme Court made a final decision in this case four years ago, Attorney General Eric Schmitt is making a unique request to renew the legal battle over the 2015 bill, judges said.

“What evidence should we consider concerning whether it’s equitable to do something that this court has never done before, and that’s to grant relief against a final judgment based on a case decision,” Judge Patricia Breckenridge said.

Schmitt is basing his argument on a 2019 decision in City of Aurora v. Spectrum Communications Group LLC, saying that the Supreme Court recently rejected the analysis it used to find the 2015 law unconstitutional. Schmitt went back to a circuit court to raise this claim last year, and the judge agreed and dissolved the injunction prohibiting enforcement of SB 5’s provisions pertaining to St. Louis County. The municipalities appealed.

The Supreme Court judges said Wednesday that the heart of the case is inequities.

John Sauer, arguing the case Wednesday on behalf of the attorney general’s office, said taxation-by-citation was “entrenched in St. Louis County” and it impacted poor, minority communities.

“You’re looking at a situation where there was a clearly urgent, public necessity to address a critical problem that had burst into Missouri’s consciousness, into the national consciousness,” Sauer said.

In the federal 2015 report on Ferguson’s practices, investigators found that the profiting was “racialized.” In 2014, Ferguson made 53,000 traffic stops, 50,000 non-traffic stops and had 30,000 warrants in a town of only 21,000 people. And those offenses were overwhelmingly targeted at Black residents.

A Better Together report found in October 2014 that in eight neighboring municipalities to Ferguson, revenue from fines and fees made up more than 30% of their total revenues.

That Better Together report was also at the heart of the arguments Wednesday. The defending attorney said the report found that the majority of municipalities in St. Louis County do not exceed the 20% revenue cap, and that the Better Together report is outdated at this point.

It is not equitable to treat St. Louis County different from the rest of the state, said attorney David Pittinsky, particularly when the practice itself is not in question.

“It’s obvious that the state of Missouri thinks taxation by citation is a good thing,” Pittinsky said. “It’s existed for all the municipalities for decades, and it’s never been prohibited. And the only thing that the legislature has done over the years is reduced the cap.”

One of the judges said Wednesday that the basis of argument in the 2019 Supreme Court case the attorney general is citing was available for the attorney general’s office to use when the case came before the high court in 2017, but he didn’t bring it up at the time.

Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson noted the irony of the Attorney General’s position in this case — given his staunch opposition to revisiting wrongful conviction cases.

“Your office,” Wilson said, “quite often, is standing here arguing when someone’s freedom or even life is at stake that a change in the law should not benefit that person and their judgment was final.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry for the Missouri Independent.