Why would a Missouri court strike down a post-Ferguson law designed to stop cities from abusing its citizens with excessive fines? The law, which was passed following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson, limited cities from profiting from traffic tickets and court fines. Specifically, it limited from 30 percent to 20 percent the amount of revenue cities could derive from fines and fees in most cases. However, St. Louis County faced a ceiling of 12.5 percent.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem found that the law was unconstitutional because it targeted St. Louis area municipalities with caps on traffic fine revenues that were lower than other Missouri cities, as NBC News reported. The judge also invalidated special requirements for police departments in the St. Louis area, including policies and procedures regarding police stops. Further, the court ruled that provisions of the law, such as the requirement that police departments in St. Louis County gain accreditation in six years, were unconstitutional because they amounted to unfunded mandates without resources provided by the state.
“For years citizens have been abused by local bureaucrats who have treated them like ATMs to fund their bloated budgets, salaries and perks,” said Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican who proposed the law.
Schmitt pointed to the decision as evidence why people do not trust government.
“These same bureaucrats used the tax money they collected to hire an out-of-state attorney and lobbyists to fight the most significant municipal court reform ever enacted in Missouri,” he said.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, several cities in St. Louis County challenged the law, characterizing it as an improper and unfair “special law” that targeted them, and an unfunded mandate that is illegal under the state constitution.
Sam Alton, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said, “Obviously I’m elated, and I know the municipalities that are involved are elated.”
Meanwhile, David Pittinsky, one of the other lawyers challenging the law, said the ruling was “a very courageous decision” considering the current political climate. The 20 percent cap, however, remains in place.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Coster said he will appeal the ruling.
“SB 5 passed overwhelmingly with strong bipartisan support, to stop municipalities from abusing citizens through excessive ticketing practices. A municipality should not depend upon prosecuting its citizens in order to fund the cornerstone functions of government,” he said in a statement, as reported by CBS Radio. “We will appeal the circuit court’s ruling enjoining both the 12.5% cap for St. Louis County municipalities and the new standards for policing and budgetary issues.”
Coster added, “We encourage all parties to continue to work together to achieve the important goals of municipal court reform to protect all Missourians.”
The impetus for the state legislation came in the midst of the fallout of the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson, in which it was revealed that Ferguson financially exploited its predominantly Black residents, profiting off their backs with an obscene ticketing scheme that filled the municipal coffers and had no relation to public safety. In March, the city reached an agreement with the Department of Justice to reform its police department and court system.
According to The Huffington Post, the municipalities that filed the suit are among the most reliant on such sources of revenue. The town of Normandy, the lead plaintiff with a population of 5,000 people, brought in nearly $2 million in court fees and fines in 2013, and nearly $1.5 million last year. Apparently, the law was having an impact, as Reason reported. One town, St. Ann — which depended on a speed trap for much of its funding — laid off 10 police officers. Meanwhile, the town of Charlack has dissolved its police force altogether.