House passes bill to allow for state takeover of Missouri prosecutor offices

Democrats oppose bill, saying it diminishes voters’ rights

By: - February 9, 2023 11:14 am

State Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, speaks on the House floor during the 2022 session (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).

Missouri lawmakers advanced a proposal Thursday that would give the governor the ability to strip the authority of any elected prosecutor to handle violent crime cases.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, would allow the governor to appoint a special prosecutor for five years if the number of homicide cases in any prosecuting attorney’s jurisdiction in the 12 months immediately preceding exceeds 35 cases per every 100,000 people. 

The governor would also have to determine that “a threat to public safety and health exists” based on reviewing certain crime statistics.

The special prosecutor would have “exclusive jurisdiction” to prosecute certain offenses — including murders, assaults, robberies, hijacking and other violent offenses — and be given a budget to hire up to 15 assistant prosecuting attorneys and 15 staffers. 

The House passed the bill with a 109-35 on Thursday. An attempt to pass an emergency clause, meaning the legislation would take effect immediately when the governor signs it, failed. 

The bill now heads to the Senate.

The goal of the bill, Roberts said, is to decrease crime in the state.

“When you’re talking about things like prosecutorial discretion and prosecutorial independence, that’s treading on pretty sacred ground,” Roberts said. “So the idea that we are somehow encroaching on what is a mainstay of the judicial system, we didn’t do it lightly.”

The House bill originally targeted only St. Louis’ elected prosecutor, Kimberly Gardner, a progressive Black Democrat who won her re-election Democratic primary in 2020 with more than 60% of the vote. It was amended to apply to any elected prosecutors across the state, out of concern singling out one prosecutor would be unconstitutional.

However before the final vote, Roberts affirmed that it was meant to target St. Louis because he couldn’t sit and “do nothing” about the homicides that occur in the city every year.

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, stood up after Roberts and said he was “angry” about the bill. 

He told the story about his neighbor who was shot over the weekend, while sitting in his car, and Merideth had to go out and care for him. He spoke about his niece who had to shelter in place at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, when a shooter entered the school in October.

“So no, we don’t want you to do nothing,” Merideth said. “We want you to listen to us about what we need to do something about violence in our communities.”

The solutions are investments in social services that address the root causes of violence, he said, and common sense gun laws. It’s not disregarding city voters, he said, and taking over the city’s elected offices. 

“What you always think is the solution is an easier political move of pointing the finger at elected Democrats in the cities and saying, ‘It must be their fault,’” Merideth said. “It’s politically easier to just say, ‘Now we’re going to take charge, we’ll fix it.’” 

Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, spoke about how the Republican-dominated House of Representatives in Mississippi passed a bill this week to create a separate, unelected court system in the city of Jackson that would fall outside the purview of the city’s voters, the majority of whom are Black.

Windham read a quote from Democratic Mississippi Rep. Ed Blackmon, who said: “Only in Mississippi would we have a bill like this, where we say solving the problem requires removing the vote from Black people.”

House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, didn’t allow Windham to finish speaking, saying that he was off topic and out of order. No other Democrats were allowed to speak before the House leadership cut off debate and moved for an immediate vote. 

House Democrats told reporters after the vote that they were appalled Windham was cut off and several other Black representatives from St. Louis who were waiting to speak on the bill weren’t allowed to.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous that the floor leader decided to do this on a bill that was such an importance of the folks who are really the most impacted by it,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield.

Rep. Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D- St. Louis, said she left the chamber in tears.

“It is blatantly racist when they get on the floor and say there’s a crime problem in the city of St. Louis, and the majority of the people that live there are African American,” Bosley said. “And yet you won’t let the Black representatives or even though who represent those Black folk to have a conversation. Yes, I’m furious.”

Rep. Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis, and chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said she and other St. Louis lawmakers weren’t allowed to represent their communities.

“Our gloves are off,” Terry said. “I call it racist, and so we’re gonna call a call to action from the citizens of St. Louis.”

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Gardner’s office testified against the bill in committee.

Gardner’s representative, Chief Warrant Officer Chris Hinkley, told legislators during a Jan. 30 committee hearing that the bill wrongly assumes the prosecutor’s office has a backlog of violent crime cases.

“We’ve kept violent crimes at the top,” Hinkley said, even through the pandemic. “The violent crimes will never and were not ever delayed in review and issuance.”

Included in the bill is a line that explicitly states the special prosecutor “shall not be the attorney general.”

During special sessions in 2020, Republicans similarly made two failed attempts to hand over an unprecedented amount of Gardner’s authority to then-Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. 

Schmitt would have been allowed to take over homicide cases if Gardner’s office had not filed charges within 90 days of the incidents or upon request from the “chief law enforcement officer.”

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys fought vehemently against the provision in 2020, saying that Missourians “have never wanted statewide politicians to meddle in local affairs.” 

Roberts’ bill also includes other provisions regarding public safety, including expanding the areas where school safety officers can carry firearms and extending prison sentences.

The original bill had a provision to prevent children from carrying firearms in public without adult supervision. The provision was meant to reinstate something that the Second Amendment Preservation Act took out of Missouri law when it was passed in 2021.

“Prohibition that may have previously existed, no longer exists,” Roberts said. “That has left the police to have to bootstrap ways to deal with this sort of thing.” 

But the provision was stripped from the bill, Roberts said, after several Republicans raised concerns about infringing on the Second Amendment.

Rep. Mark Sharp, D-Kansas City, was able to get his amendment through on Wednesday, which is a provision that establishes “Blair’s Law” to make celebratory gunfire a felony offense.

*This story has been updated since originally published.

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.