Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is suing 13 St. Louis County municipalities for violating a state law that caps the percentage of ticket revenue that can be in a city’s budget.
The statute in question – known as the “Mack’s Creek” law – stipulates that traffic fines and court costs can only comprise less than 30 percent of a city’s budget. Anything in excess has to go to schools.
“The Mack’s Creek law was enacted to protect plaintiffs from predatory ticketing,” said Koster. “This problem has been felt nowhere more acutely than in north St. Louis County. As we continue to identify areas for reform, an important first step is to require that St. Louis municipalities, and all municipalities around the state, follow the Mack’s Creek law to the letter.”
Municipalities that Koster sued include: Bellerive Acres, Beverly Hills, Breckenridge Hills, Crystal Lake Park, Hillsdale, Mackenzie, Moline Acres, Normandy, Pagedale, Pasadena park, Uplands Park, Velda Village Hills and Vinita Terrace.
At a press conference in St. Louis Thursday, Koster said some of the cities – such as Pasadena Park, Breckenridge Park, Upland Park, Beverly Hills and Pagedale – didn’t submit financial reports showcasing how much of their budget consisted of fine revenue. Others – like Velda Village Hills, Mackenzie, Hillsdale and Crystal Lake Park – failed to indicate how much of their operating revenue was derived from fines.
Koster said four municipalities – Bellerive Acres, Moline Acres, Normandy and Vinita terrace – submitted reports suggesting they exceeded the cap.
Koster is suing to revoke the cities’ municipal courts from jurisdiction over traffic-related offenses until they’re in compliance with the law. He added, “If these municipalities will work with my office to come into compliance, then we will work with them.”
“I understand that the failure to comply could be highly impactful on the financial stability of these municipalities,” Koster said. “It is not my goal to financially destabilize these communities. But it is our goal to bring them, and all cities in this state, into full compliance with the Mack’s Creek law.”
Koster said that he worked with Auditor Tom Schweich’s office to retrieve the financial reports from municipalities. Schweich – who is auditing a group of municipal courts – said in a statement that he’s “pleased that the attorney general has joined in my efforts to increase transparency and accountability among our municipal courts.”
“I look forward to working with our partners of both parties in the General Assembly in the upcoming session to bring about change for the benefit of the citizens of the affected communities," Schweich said.
Only a handful of the municipalities that St. Louis Public Radio contacted about the lawsuit responded. Normandy Mayor Patrick Green said that he would need to talk with his legal team before commenting – adding that the call from this reporter was the first time he heard about the lawsuit.
Vinita Terrace attorney Marc Kramer said in an interview that the city's fiscal report spans a time when the Mack’s Creek law was changed.
“So, the information that was provided to Mr. Koster’s office – and properly so – was the information on any tickets given on the state road for the first six months. Because that was the first six months of our tax year,” Kramer said. “And after Aug. 28 was on any moving violation in the village of Vinita Terrace. So, when we figured it all out, it was like 15 percent of what we all had of the total revenue that came in for all moving violations.”
Kramer said he was “surprised” that Vinita Terrace was included in the lawsuit.
“All you have to do is make a request and the municipalities will give the information,” Kramer said. “If the purpose was for publicity, then he did what he wanted to do.”
The Ferguson effect
Since Michael Brown’s death, some St. Louis County municipalities have come under intense scrutiny for their municipal court systems. Some attorneys and political figures contend an aggressive posture toward ticketing fostered a hostile relationship between law enforcement and citizens.
Koster said the heightened awareness of the issue – which included national exposes in the Washington Post and The New York Times – made a difference.
“I have been late in coming, I think, to the recognition of the importance of the Mack’s Creek law,” Koster said. “The Ferguson situation raised it up to our attention. And I just don’t think that it’s been something that this office has focused on.”
(Koster also emphasized it was unclear “who is the actual prosecutor in the Mack’s Creek statute. He also said that changes in the law made in 2013 altered how cities were in violation of the statute.)
Ferguson Commission co-chairmen Starsky Wilson and Rich McClure joined Koster at his press conference. Both men stated that pairing down the power of municipal courts was a major priority for the commission.
Wilson said aggressive ticketing by some municipal police departments fostered a hostile relationship between police and citizens.
“Today’s action, which goes to enforcement to laws on the books for those who are outside of compliance really gets to responding to the pains of people who stood in our meetings,” Wilson said. “[They] shared their tales, quite frankly, of difficult times in these courts – including feeling that they were preyed upon by the courts, feeling that they were supporting a system that oppressed them and, quite frankly, expressing pain because they felt that these systems should protect and care for them.”
Koster’s lawsuit comes as lawmakers are considering lowering the Mack’s Creek law threshold. Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, proposed a bill earlier this month lowering the percentage city's could procure from tickets to 10 percent.
St. Louis Public Radio reporter Rebecca Smith supplied information for this story.