Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Legislature Sends Municipal Court Reforms to Gov. Nixon

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Legislature Sends Municipal Court Reforms to Gov. Nixon

Article excerpt

JEFFERSON CITY * Qiana Williams, 36, of St. Louis, spent two weeks in jail in Pine Lawn last summer after being arrested as a fugitive for unpaid parking tickets. She has been visible at protests this year, speaking out against abusive practices by municipal police and courts.

She said the Missouri Legislature's approval Thursday of a bill removing a municipality's ability to jail someone for a minor traffic infraction was "magnificent."

"I feel like we won," she said.

The House passed and sent to the governor a bill that takes aim at what critics call predatory municipal practices that target the poor and use courts and police departments as ATMs.

If Gov. Jay Nixon signs the bill, people could be fined no more than $300 for minor traffic offenses. Cities couldn't pile on extra "failure to appear" charges because an offender missed a court date. And in most cases, traffic offenders couldn't be jailed for failing to pay fines.

Cities that use municipal courts as revenue generators would have to look elsewhere. Fines and fees from minor violations could furnish no more than 12.5 percent of the general operating revenue for municipalities in St. Louis County and 20 percent in the rest of the state.

"Every once in a while, an issue comes along where you really have an opportunity to right an injustice," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale.

House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said the bill would end "taxation by citation."

The House passed it Thursday on a vote of 134-25. The measure cleared the Senate Wednesday night on a vote of 31-3.

Gov. Jay Nixon is expected to sign the bill. In a speech in March, he said municipal court abuses have "undermined the bond of trust that must exist between the government and the governed."

Nixon's spokeswoman said Thursday that he would give the bill "a fair and comprehensive review."

A push for legislation gained momentum after last year's unrest in Ferguson.

The U.S. Department of Justice report issued March 4 detailed a pattern of civil rights abuse by Ferguson police and courts, saying that they operated "not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue."

A Post-Dispatch review of state and national data showed that St. Louis County is a national hot spot for ticketing, generating more than $52 million a year for its 90 municipalities, 81 courts and 63 police departments.

But setting a lower cap for St. Louis County cities than the rest of the state prompted opposition from some St. Louis County lawmakers. They said one standard should apply statewide.

"If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander," said Rep. Sharon Pace, D-Northwoods. "If one community has 20 percent, the others should have it across the board as well."

Calverton Park Mayor Jim Paunovich said: "What they're really doing is putting the municipalities out of business. …

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