State Auditor Tom Schweich will audit 10 municipal courts to see if they’re running afoul of a state law that restricts how much revenue from traffic fines a city can keep.
The Republican official included Ferguson’s court in the tally; it has come under scrutiny since the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Besides Ferguson, Schweich will audit St. Louis County-based municipal courts in Bella Villa, Pine Lawn and St. Ann. He’ll also audit Foristell in St. Charles County and Foley and Winfield in Lincoln County.
Speaking to reporters in St. Louis, Schweich said he’d be examining whether these municipal courts are violating the “Mack’s Creek” law restricting how much revenue a city can collect from traffic violations and related fees from local courts. The latest revision limits revenue to 30 percent of a city's budget. Any excess is to be turned over to the state for education.
According to a press release, the audits will examine "statistics on warrants (including data on race and gender), embezzlement, special treatment or corruption, and proper accounting practices."
Since Brown’s death, municipal courts have come under fire for trapping poor people, especially African Americans, in a cycle of increasingly onerous fines for minor infractions. Some fear that municipalities are aggressively ticketing to pad their budgets, especially in cities where commercial development is lagging.
“More and more officials have become concerned about the abuse of the traffic court system for revenue generation purposes rather than for safety, justice and efficiency purposes,” Schweich said.
One reason auditing municipal courts is easier now, Schweich said, is because the legislature changed to the Mack’s Creek law. Many cities got around the revenue cap by amending charges to non-moving violations, said Schweich who added that under the current law, that’s no longer possible.
“Now it’s very, very clear any traffic violation – even if it’s amended to a non-moving violation – applies toward the 30 percent,” Schweich said. “And this makes it something we can now audit. So one reason we’re unveiling this initiative now was it’s something that was really not susceptible to being audited before and now it is.”
The audit comes as a bipartisan group of state lawmakers have expressed interest in paring down the power of municipal courts, including reducing the Mack’s Creek revenue cap or making it more manageable for poor Missourians to pay fines.
Schweich's audit has bipartisan support, ranging from Republicans like St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann and Democrats such as state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, and state Rep. Sharon Pace, D-St. Louis County.
“There are real concerns in regards to the tickets that (people are) receiving,” said Pace, who represents part of Ferguson. “It should not be a revenue-generating source. And that’s what it’s being used for in certain municipalities.”
Ehlmann said he’s often been alarmed by how many police departments are stopping people when he drives to downtown St. Louis on Interstate 70. And he learned from talking with the Rev. B.T. Rice that the fines are causing church members to donate less money to their congregations.
Church members "would say ‘well, I’ve got a $200 fine in some municipality and I need to pay that or I’ll go to jail,’” Ehlmann said.
Schweich said that if his audits – to be conducted during 2015 – find that cities are violating the Mack’s Creek law, the attorney general’s office could sue to get the additional money for the state. He also said the municipal court in question could be stripped of its jurisdiction.
“What they should do is at the end of each fiscal year, they should calculate whether they’ve exceeded that percentage and then send in a check; it’s real simple,” Schweich said. “It’s only if they don’t do that that the problem arises.”
Knowles: Ferguson’s court abides by the law
St. Louis Public Radio left messages for spokespeople or administrators in Bella Villa, St. Ann and Pine Lawn. None of those people have responded.
The one official who did comment was Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. He said he’s not surprised Ferguson’s municipal court was picked by Schweich’s audit, but added he’s confident it hasn’t taken in more money than allowed under state law.
“No matter what we did, he’s going to have to look at us. I understand that,” Knowles said. “Because we were the focal point. But we’ve got a good finance staff. And that’s something we’ve been cognizant of for years making sure we don’t have our fines and forfeitures get too high – especially not nearly high enough to be snared by the state law.
“And we’re making a commitment to go much further now even still,” he added.
Knowles was referring to measures the Ferguson City Council passed recently to reform the city’s municipal court. Now if municipal court revenue goes above 15 percent, it has to go to “special projects.” The bills also did away with certain fines and penalties, including a “failure to appear charge.”
“We’ve already tried to take a proactive step to try and be a leader in making that threshold even lower for ourselves,” Knowles said. “And we’d encourage others to do the same.”
Still, Ehlmann would like state lawmakers to enact even more curbs on municipal courts. That includes forcing them to sentence people to community service – as opposed to issuing steep fines.
“I’d like to see more use of public works programs when you don’t have the money. Fine,” he said. “Show up at City Hall on Sunday morning and let’s go pick up trash. The punishments don’t need to be monetary. Nobody’s suggesting that you should get a free pass or speed or break the law.
“I used to be a judge,” he added. “In some cases, it’s ridiculous to keep piling on the fines because you know these people can’t pay anyway. So give them an alternative.”