Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation Thursday limiting the ability of cities to profit from traffic tickets and municipal court fines — the first significant step taken by state lawmakers to address concerns raised after last summer’s fatal police shooting of a black, unarmed 18-year-old in Ferguson.
Nixon announced the bill signing in St. Louis, near the suburb where white Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown in August, setting off protests that occasionally turned violent.
Brown was walking in the street, not driving, when he was stopped by Wilson and scuffled with the officer. A U.S. Justice Department investigation cleared Wilson of wrongdoing in Brown’s death, and a state grand jury declined to bring charges.
Supporters of the legislation have said it will address the predatory revenue-generating practices of Ferguson’s police and court system that were detailed in a Justice Department report.
Some protesters said the generally white police force’s treatment of the predominantly black community led to longstanding frustrations and racial tensions. The use of police to collect revenue through traffic fines and court fees added to that distrust, according to some residents and legal advocates.
Once the new municipal courts law takes effect Aug. 28, it will lower the percentage of revenue most cities can collect from traffic fines and fees from 30 percent to 20 percent. Any additional money from fees must go to local schools, an attempt by lawmakers to take away incentives for local governments to overly rely on ticketing for funding.
Although a report by legislative researchers did not estimate the total cost of the legislation to cities, many have said it could take a chunk from local budgets. For example, the city of Springfield estimated it could cost the community $250,000 a year because of the provision axing required court appearances.
However, Sedalia City Administrator Gary Edwards said the reduction in traffic fine revenue will have a minimal impact to the city’s budget.
“(The legislation was) aimed primarily at cities such as Macks Creek and Ferguson; a large portion of their budget was made up of fines in the court. That’s not the case in Sedalia,” he said. “I think the anticipated total income for courts (in Sedalia) is $150,000 based on a almost $30 million budget, so it should not have an impact on us. … (The attorney general) started looking at the percentage of fines in comparison to the budget, and Sedalia comes nowhere close to those two cities.”
Fines for minor traffic violations will be capped at $300, including court fees, and charges for failure to appear in court for those offenses will be eliminated.
Sedalia Municipal Court Judge Deborah Mitchell said she doesn’t know exactly how many failure to appear warrants she issues for minor traffic violations, but she issued approximately 300 total last year.
“Generally what we do if someone doesn’t show up, I’ll send them a summons because anyone can miss a court date, there can be a really good reason. I don’t issue a warrant for those types of things,” Mitchell said. “If they don’t show up the second time after they are scheduled to come, I do issue a warrant for failure to appear; it’s a separate charge and carries a separate fine of $88.50 that includes court costs. I will not be able to do that on minor traffic violations (with the new legislation).”
The measure will also require municipal courts to be open to the public, offer alternative sentencing options and prohibit the use of detention to coerce payments.
Mitchell said one slight local change will be requiring anyone who wants to enter into a payment agreement to bring in money to start a payment plan, and the individual will be put on probation until all payments are made.
Mitchell had the same view as Edwards, saying the new legislation is “generally not going to affect us very much at all.” She said the Sedalia municipal court was already following most of the requirements in the new legislation, so citizens won’t be seeing many local changes.
“What was going on in the St. Louis area was that people are charged for court costs that are not allowed by law, they were charged more money to continue a case … that was not authorized by law either; really bad things were going on in other courts that are not happening here at all,” she said. “The only thing that affected us here is we are required to do an annual report, which we’ve already been working on putting together, certifying that we’re doing things we’re supposed to do. We will also have to change the fee schedule because now certain violations are not punishable by fines over $300.
“… It will affect us somewhat, but not significantly in that we were pretty much going by the book beforehand. We were running the court well and we’ve been running court well and by the law … We’re going to be operating the way we were because we don’t have to make any changes, which is good news.”