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Government, Politics & Issues

Municipal court problems spread throughout Missouri, auditor says

Members of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment conduct a silent protest during a public hearing on municipal court reform on Nov. 12, 2015.
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Nearly two years ago, Michael Brown's death brought to light abusive municipal court practices in the St. Louis area. A new report released by auditor Nicole Galloway on Wednesday shows the problems exist statewide.

"We've seen repeated challenges that prevent Missourians from having the municipal courts they deserve," Galloway said in a statement accompanying the report. "Courts should operate efficiently, effectively and fairly, and these audits shine light on problems and make recommendations, so that work can begin toward regaining citizen trust."

Wednesday's report is a compilation of the five most common and concerning findings from a series of audits Galloway did of 18 municipal courts across the state. She identified five widespread issues:

  • Missing funds

Galloway found at least $80,000 missing from two courts — Leasburg, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis in Crawford County and Tarkio, in far northwest Missouri. The report said that total could be as high as $121,000

  • Accounting controls and procedures

A vast majority of the municipal courts struggled with proper financial oversight. Many had one person handling all money with no checks and balances

  • Municipal division procedures

In every court reviewed, Galloway's office found poor record-keeping of municipal cases. Auditors also found that the courts had charged a total of $316,000 in improper fines and fees.

  • Inadequate documentation of vehicle stop data

Several small police departments did not maintain the information needed to show whether their traffic stop data were correct. That data are used by the attorney general to evaluate racial profiling issues in the state.

  • Funds owed for excess revenue from traffic violations

Galloway found that cities had a difficult time calculating how much of their general revenue came from traffic fines and fees, and therefore failed to pay at least $765,000 to the state.
"This is not just an audit of dollars and cents moving around a ledger," said John Ammann the head of the civil litigation clinic at Saint Louis University School of Law and a fierce critic of municipal courts. "Mistakes in this process that the auditor noted result in warrants being issued, result in people going to jail, result in people losing their jobs."

He called Galloway's findings unsurprising but disturbing. He said the fact that problems are so widespread may make reforms easier.

Frank Vatterott, a municipal judge in the St. Louis County suburb of Overland, said it was "sad" and "not right" that a number of municipal courts were not following both state law and internal court operating rules. But he said it was up to presiding judges to exercise more oversight.

A working group created by the Missouri Supreme Court to study municipal court reforms released its own report in March. A spokeswoman for the state court system said a separate committee was working to figure out how to implement some of those changes.

Major reforms to municipal courts were among the few pieces of Ferguson-related legislation that passed the general assembly in the months after Michael Brown's death. Senate Bill 5, the largest of those measures, lowered the percentage of revenue cities could make from traffic fines and fees. But a Cole County judge threw out those new limits in March, and the law is under attack from other angles as well. 

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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