Governor Jay Nixon signed into law today (July 9) Senate Bill 5, in what he called “the most comprehensive and sweeping municipal court reform in Missouri history.”
The bill – steered to passage by state Sen. Eric Schmitt (with assistance from the Ferguson Commission, Arch City Defenders, SLU Law and others) – caps the amount of money that cities can collect from traffic fines and fees at 12.5 percent of a city’s budget in St. Louis County, and 20 percent in the rest of the state. This is down from the 30 percent currently allowed by state law, a restriction that is not currently enforced.
Fines and court costs for minor traffic offenses are now capped at $300, and no one will be sentenced to jail for not being able to pay a fine.
Also, citizens are now able to vote to dissolve their local governments if they don’t turn over excess traffic revenue to the state within 60 days – effective January 1, 2016.
“This landmark legislation will return our municipal courts to their intended purpose; serving our citizens and protecting the public,” said Nixon at a press conference held at the Old Post Office Building in downtown St. Louis city.
“That means, under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops; investigating crimes, protecting the public and keeping dangerous criminals off the streets.”
An amendment by then House Speaker John Diehl added a host of standards for St. Louis County municipalities, including written policies regarding use of force by police officers and for collecting and reporting all crime and police data. A city that violates those standards could be placed under the oversight of an administrative authority or face a disincorporation election.
The bill had overwhelming support from the Missouri House and Senate.
“What we found was there was a breakdown in trust between people and their government and people and their courts,” Schmitt said. “Healing that is something worth fighting for.”
However, State Rep. Clem Smith, who represents parts of about 25 municipalities in St. Louis County, was one who opposed the bill because he said the law puts an unfair condition on St. Louis County compared to the other areas of the states.
“Everyone wanted to say, ‘We did something for Ferguson,’” Smith said, “but unfortunately it created a double standard for the residents of the state. I can’t understand why anyone would vote for unequal treatment.”
Sen. Jay Wasson, a Republican who represents a district in the state’s southwestern corner, sponsored the language that set the traffic fine revenue cap at 20 percent for rural areas, after expressing concern about the financial impact the bill could have on small rural towns. Smith said it was unfair that the legislature reached a compromise with these areas but not with those representing municipalities with majority African-American populations.
Nixon responded to this sentiment saying that the legislature wanted to send a “significant message” to the St. Louis County area, “where the significant challenge was coming from.”
Whether governed by white or black elected officials, many of the county’s majority-black municipalities were the worst when it came to supporting their annual budgets through traffic tickets and court fines, according to data used in the legislature and provided by Schmitt’s office.
For example in Pine Lawn in 2013, 48 percent of its $1.8 million budget came from revenue of fees and fines. For St. Ann, it was 37.5 percent of the municipality’s $3.4 million budget.
SB5 will force these municipalities to reform, or basically force them out of business.
Nixon said Senate Bill 5 builds on the 1995 Macks Creek law, which limits cities and towns to using only 30 percent of revenue collected from traffic citations in their budgets. The former town of Macks Creek, near the Lake of the Ozarks, was once known as a notorious speed trap. At one time, more than 75 percent of its operating budget came from speeding tickets and other traffic citations.
Better Together St. Louis, a project of the Missouri Council for a Better Economy, said the bill introduces important standards, including the requirement for all Missouri police departments to be accredited within six years.
“For far too long, the practices of municipal courts have created significant ill-will between citizens and police,” according to the group’s statement. “By limiting the revenue that can be collected through fines imposed for minor traffic violations and disallowing jail sentences for failure to appear in court, SB5 cuts down on what many groups view as the ‘criminalization of poverty.’”
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