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Government, Politics & Issues

Court Ruling Revives Limits On Fines And Fees, Police Standards In St. Louis County

State Treasurer Eric Schmitt, center, will become attorney general after Josh Hawley becomes a U.S. Senator in Jan. 2019.
File photo / Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, center, shown in 2018, has successfully revived provisions of SB 5 that only apply to St. Louis County.

Lower limits on how much money cities in St. Louis County can make from fines and fees may be returning, after a ruling issued Tuesday by a judge in Jefferson City.

The provisions were part of Senate Bill 5, which passed in 2015 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. No city in Missouri could have more than 20% of its budget come from fines or court fees, down from 30% under a previous law. The limit was even lower for municipalities in St. Louis County — 12.5% — and municipal police departments there were forced to meet minimum standards.

A group of north county cities sued, arguing that the lower budget limits and the police department standards made SB 5 an unconstitutional special law. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed in a 2017 ruling, and the matter seemed settled.

But late last year, in an unrelated case, the judges reversed themselves.

“Every law is entitled to a presumption of constitutional validity in this Court, and if the line drawn by the legislature is supported by a rational basis, the law is not local or special and the analysis ends,” Patricia Breckenridge wrote in the opinion.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a lead architect of the legislation when he was in the General Assembly, asked a lower court to apply that logic to SB 5.

In a ruling issued Tuesday, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetum wrote that “the minimum standards … rationally advance the State’s goals by promoting transparency and accountability in municipal finances and accounting, and ensuring the municipal police forces meet minimum standards — both of which also promote the State’s goal of curbing the abuses associated with revenue-driven municipal enforcement,” and allowed the state to begin enforcing those stricter limits.

The ruling means enforcement of the county-specific provisions could begin immediately, but it was unclear when Schmitt’s office would take action.

An attorney for the cities did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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