After two years of legal conflict over its harsh ticketing policy, the town of Pagedale has agreed to a consent decree that aims to put an end to its policy of making money by ticketing its residents for minor, and even nonexistent, offenses.
Pagedale has agreed to stop prosecuting many in-progress cases and change sections of its municipal code making “harmless conditions” for homeowners’ property illegal, among other conditions of ending a class-action lawsuit against the city.
A consent decree is a legal agreement between two parties in a lawsuit in which the defendant agrees to change its behavior without admitting liability. The plaintiffs in the case, three Pagedale residents, can ask the court to enforce the decree’s provisions if Pagedale does not comply.
The law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP), which was involved in the case on a pro bono basis, said in a press release that it was an important milestone in the fight to confine government authority to its appropriate functions.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian civil liberties law firm that worked on the case, agreed.
“Judge Sippel’s approval finally brings the city of Pagedale’s criminal and civil justice system into compliance with the requirements of the Constitution,” Bill Maurer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, said.
“The consent decree provides defendants with meaningful protections as they move through the city’s justice system. We appreciate the city’s willingness to come to the table and agree to implement these critical and sweeping reforms.”
Pagedale, a small town in North County, has around 3000 residents. However, the city of Pagedale ticketed 18,678 different people in the period between January 2010 and October 2016. It issued a total of 32,229 tickets. This resulted in a significant number of contested tickets as well. The city’s municipal court, which meets only twice a month, heard an average of 241 cases per night it operated in 2013.
In Pagedale, where many residents live under the poverty line, ticketing became an important source of revenue: the city’s second largest source of revenue, in fact, making up between 16 and 23 percent of its revenue.
In 2015, Missouri lawmakers voted to limit the amount of money municipalities could make from traffic tickets to 12.5 percent of operating revenue, based partially on Ferguson residents’ allegations that their city’s police were making money by disproportionately ticketing black residents. Major parts of that law were struck down by a higher court in 2016.
However, even when that bill was in full effect, it did not slow down Pagedale. After the law was passed, the number of tickets Pagedale issued for housing violations instead sharply increased. Eventually, 39 percent of the town’s adult residents had received a housing ticket.
“Pagedale residents could be – and were – ticketed for such things as not having curtains on their basement windows, having mismatched blinds, having more than three people at a barbecue, and having a basketball hoop in the front of their house,” the Institute for Justice said in a press release. “The city even prosecuted residents for conditions that were not forbidden by the municipal code, like having a crack in one’s driveway or an untreated fence.”
Many residents did not know they had been ticketed for something that was not illegal, because they were not told what they had been ticketed for at all. This often led to their being caught in a cycle of debt to the city for infractions they did not understand, or which were not even actually illegal, the Institute for Justice said.
In 2015, three Pagedale residents filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of themselves and others affected by the town’s draconian ticketing practices. After battling in court for two years, the parties have agreed to a consent decree and it has been approved by federal judge Rodney W. Sippel.
Provisions of the consent decree including dropping all pending cases unless there is a good reason to continue prosecution; eliminating several fines, fees and laws in its municipal code that punish impoverished residents and criminalize harmless housing conditions; no longer issuing tickets for infractions that are not actually in the municipal code; and providing information to residents on why they are being ticketed.
“Finally, my nightmare is over,” said Pagedale resident Valarie Whitner, one of the three residents to file the suit. “Every morning I woke up worried that I’d get another ticket. Now I can sleep easy and get on with my life.”
The full consent decree can be read at https://tinyurl.com/y8alfeeh.