Lawsuit Says Another Missouri City Was Funding Itself By Fining Residents for Sagging Pants, Mismatched Curtains And Other Petty Claims

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Valarie Whitner displays some of the tickets that have been written to her and her partner, Vincent Blount, by the city of Pagedale. (David Carson)
Valarie Whitner displays some of the tickets that have been written to her and her partner, Vincent Blount, by the city of Pagedale. (David Carson)

When Michael Brown died at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, it revealed racial tensions in the Missouri town. A Justice Department investigation later discovered Ferguson officials were targeting Black residents with excessive fines to help fund city operations. A St. Louis Post- Dispatch story has revealed Ferguson wasn’t the only Missouri city doing this.

The Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, has filed a lawsuit to stop the city of Pagedale from “incessantly” fining residents, according to The Post-Dispatch. The city was fining residents for violations such as high grass, mismatched curtains and sagging pants, said the lawsuit.

According to The Post-Dispatch, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Valarie Whitner and Vincent Blount, who claim their home has been targeted with a barrage of fines from the city. When the couple couldn’t keep up with the fines, city officials threatened to demolish their home, even though it was not a public safety threat, but merely a nuisance.

Whitner and Blount say they were caught in a revolving door of fines. Once they fixed one problem, the city would hit them with another. According to the Institute for Justice, the couple received more than $2,800 in fines.

The Institute for Justice found that the city of Pagedale was over reliant on court fines, and charged it with violating residents’ civil rights. An investigation by The Post-Dispatch found that Pagedale, which has a population of 3,300, issued 2,255 citations last year, an average of two per household. According to state court data, that represents a 500 percent increase from five years ago.

“If we are successful, we’re hoping to see the city stop relying — or unduly relying — on fines and fees from the tickets it issues,” said William Maurer, Institute for Justice senior attorney.

Some of the fines border on the ridiculous. Residents could be fined for barbecuing in the front yard and having a beer within 150 feet of the grill.

Sam Alton, Pagedale city attorney, defended the city’s actions.

“The city is simply attempting to get these individuals to bring their property up to code like everyone else,” he said. “If they just work with the city, and just do something minimally every month, those fines will be abated.”

Whitner, who works nights at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and Blount, who is unemployed, had to take out a payday loan to pay off the fines. They told The Post-Dispatch they would have moved, but they spent their savings putting three children through college.

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