Among the public policy issues that have emerged since Michael Brown’s death, reforming municipal courts appears to have gained the most traction
Last week, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich announced which municipal courts his office was investigating to see whether they’re keeping more traffic fine revenue than what’s allowed under state law.
St. Ann was one of the 10 municipalities on Schweich's list.
But St. Ann city administrator Matt Conley is pushing back at the conventional wisdom that revamping municipal courts is inevitable or positive.
“Yes, we’ve pulled over a lot of people. We’ve written quite a few tickets,” Conley said. “The speeders pay for the detail that goes out there and does that. It’s not taking resources away from the rest of the city. So we welcome the state auditor to come in.”
Both national and local publications have reported how some of St. Louis County’s municipal courts issue steep fines, primarily to African-American motorists. Because many can't afford the escalating fines, they wind up in legal and financial difficulty.
Some policymakers — including law professors at Saint Louis University and attorneys with the Arch City Defenders — have suggested changes to make it easier for poor people to pay municipal fines. But Conley questions how that policy could be implemented.
He said that gets into “choice issues” about “what people choose to spend their money on.”
“Just because your income is one level doesn’t mean that you don’t have the money,” Conley said. “I could make a million dollars a year and spend all my money on travel. And then get pulled over and not have the money to pay a fine. Or I could be of more modest means and choose to buy the NFL package on my cable TV and then claim I don’t have any money to pay for my speeding ticket.
“I understand the social justice of people making those claims,” he added. “But I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for the court system or anybody to play the arbitrator on who can afford pay a fine or who can’t.”
Conley acknowledges St. Ann received flak in recent years for pulling people over for speeding along Interstate 70 near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. Although he hasn’t talked with Schweich’s office about the audit, he figured his city would be included because of the number of traffic stops his city’s police department makes – and “the fact that people don’t like getting tickets on Interstate 70 that they probably called his hotline and stuff like that.”
But, added Conley, St. Ann has worked with the Missouri Department of Transportation to reduce accidents along its stretch of I-70. He said there were more than 140 accidents in 2009 – and only 12 so far this year. He also said his city’s court was recently reviewed by the Office of the State Court Administrator.
“So as our enforcement went up, the number of accidents went down,” Conley said. “And that’s because people are starting to pay attention and drive slower. We only write a ticket out on Interstate 70 if you’re going 11 miles an hour or over the speed limits. So you have to be doing 71 miles an hour before we write a ticket … you get an 11-mile an hour (grace area) of speeding.”
During his news conference last week, Schweich emphasized if law enforcement is a city’s objective, “they can still write as many tickets as they want.” The trade off, he said, is that the municipality can’t derive more than 30 percent of its revenue from traffic fines.
“Our concern is when law enforcement isn’t the objective — when revenue generation is,” Schweich said. “If it’s really not a dangerous area, they probably won’t be patrolling that if the 30 percent rule applies. If it really is a dangerous area, as police officers, they’re trained to catch people who are violating the law. They would continue to write the same number of tickets. We’re not stopping people from writing tickets. We’re stopping people from abusing a system for the purpose of generating revenue, rather than enforcing the law.”
Still, St. Ann likely won’t be the only city pushing back against statewide changes to municipal courts. An official with the Missouri Municipal League said earlier this fall it would oppose any effort to lower the amount of ticket money a city could keep. And Conley said cities like his are going to push back against its critics.
“It’s very disingenuous to go after cities that are trying to get people to slow down from speeding and say ‘oh you’re just doing this for the money,’” Conley said. “Well, the money is an aspect of it because for our perspective, we wouldn’t be able to get people to slow down on our section of Interstate 70 and reduce the accidents without the income that’s generated from the fines.”