Amid continued concerns over the state’s response to last summer’s Ferguson unrest, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has signed what he calls “the most comprehensive and sweeping municipal court reform bill in Missouri history.”
The governor and a bipartisan cadre of the bill’s sponsors gathered triumphantly Thursday in a courtroom at the historic old St. Louis Post Office. The setting offered up a symbol of the changes that the bill – officially known as Senate Bill 5 – imposes on communities and their local courts.
Among other things, the bill sets limits on how much of a city's budget can come from traffic fines and fees. It will also require changes in how municipalities operate.
As St. Louis Public Radio has reported, the bill (SB5) caps the amount of money that cities and villages 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.
But the new law’s impact likely will be particularly significant in north St. Louis County, where a number of small communities have for decades relied heavily on traffic fees and court fines to pay their bills.
No more. “Some municipal courts were operating to raise revenue rather than to serve justice – and often doing so on the backs of those who were least able to pay,” the governor said. “Friends, our court system exists to protect the safety of our citizens, not profit from them.”
Nixon, a Democrat, praised the work of legislators in both parties – especially the chief sponsor, state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale – to craft the expansive legislation.
“It reflects the resolve of every day, hard-working Missourians from all walks of life,” he said. “Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, black and white, rural and urban, to bend the arc of history toward justice. “
The governor said the bill will end a repeat of such abuses as that of a woman “arrested, jailed, and fined more than $1,000 for two parking tickets she received in 2007” and “a 67-year old woman arrested after failing to pay a trash removal citation.”
For too long, Nixon said, municipalities and their courts were to blame for “indigent defendants trapped in a downward spiral to financial ruin, with fines, fees and punishments far out of proportion to their initial offenses…”
Such communities also were misusing their police, he continued, who were “being treated as profit centers rather than professionals called to serve and protect.”
Those in the audience included former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch, who lauded the new restrictions. “This is what I was complaining about in 2009, when Charlack put up speed cameras along I-170,’’ Fitch said. “It was about raising revenue, not about public safety.”
Ferguson prompted attention
The effort behind SB5, however, was ignited by last summer’s protests in Ferguson. Although the unrest was initiated by a police shooting that killed teenager Michael Brown, many of the protesters’ complaints centered on alleged mistreatment by local police and the courts.
Schmitt, who grew up in north St. Louis County, said some of the concerns were valid. During lengthy interviews with local residents, he said, “What we found was that there was a breakdown in trust between people and their government, and people and their courts.”
“Repairing that and healing that was something worth fighting for,’’ Schmitt added.
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis and a cosponsor of SB5, said she is happy with the overall bill. "I can truly say that the tragic death of Michael Brown was not in vain," she said. "There's a lot of work that we need to do, but a lot has been done."
SB5's key provisions include:
- A balanced annual budget listing anticipated revenues and expenditures;
- An annual audit by a certified public accountant of the city’s finances;
- Adequate levels of insurance;
- A police department that’s accredited or certified by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies or the Missouri Police Chiefs Association. A town could also have a contract for police service with an accredited department;
- Written policies regarding use of force by officers;
- Written policies for collecting and reporting all crime and police stop data.
Municipal court changes
By the end of the year, the 80 municipal judges will have to certify that their courts have in place certain procedures, including:
- Allowing every defendant to be heard by a judge within 48 hours for traffic violations and 72 hours for other offenses;
- Basing the amount of a fine or fee on the ability of an individual to pay;
- Eliminating failure-to-appear charges;
- Setting up payments plans or alternative community service options;
- Holding court in a space big enough to accommodate the public, defendants and attorneys.