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Missouri Supreme Court reaffirms ruling on 2015 law capping revenue from court fines

By: - April 26, 2022 3:41 pm

The signs told the story when a large crowd turned out to address a work group that the Missouri Supreme Court appointed to review municipal courts and suggest reforms on November 12, 2015 at the Missouri Court of Appeals inside the Old Post Office building in downtown St. Louis. (Photo by Wiley Price/St. Louis American)

Following the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, the U.S. Department of Justice found that city’s police department and municipal court had intentionally worked together to increase revenue through fines and traffic tickets.

Responding to public outcry, Missouri legislators passed a law limiting the amount of revenue St. Louis County municipalities can collect from court fines to no more than 12.5% of their entire revenue stream.

But for the rest of the state’s cities and towns, the law set the limit at 20%. 

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that setting a different revenue cap for St. Louis County was unconstitutional. On Tuesday, the state’s highest court reaffirmed that decision. 

The focus of the court’s Tuesday ruling was Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s unique request to renew the legal battle over the court-reform bill.

In 2020, Schmitt argued that a circuit court decision in an unrelated 2019 case should result in the Supreme Court’s decision on St. Louis County being thrown out. 

A circuit court judge agreed and dissolved the injunction that prohibited enforcement of the provisions pertaining to St. Louis County. The municipalities appealed. 

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled the circuit court erred in its decision, stating that it “failed to properly weigh the equities to determine whether it was inequitable for the 2016 judgment to remain in force.” 

The Supreme Court vacated the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the ruling.

During the case arguments in October, the Supreme Court judges said the heart of the case is inequities.

“What evidence should we consider concerning whether it’s equitable to do something that this court has never done before, and that’s to grant relief against a final judgment based on a case decision,” Judge Patricia Breckenridge said.

The attorney general’s office argued that taxation-by-citation was “entrenched in St. Louis County” and it impacted poor, minority communities. 

“You’re looking at a situation where there was a clearly urgent, public necessity to address a critical problem that had burst into Missouri’s consciousness, into the national consciousness,” said John Sauer, who represented the attorney general’s office.

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In the federal 2015 report on Ferguson’s practices, investigators found that the profiting was “racialized.” In 2014, Ferguson had 53,000 open traffic cases, 50,000 non-traffic cases and had 30,000 warrants in a town of only 21,000 people. And those offenses were overwhelmingly targeted at Black residents. 

However, the attorney for the municipalities argued it is not equitable to treat St. Louis County differently from the rest of the state, particularly when the practice itself is not in question.

“It’s obvious that the state of Missouri thinks taxation by citation is a good thing,” said attorney David Pittinsky. “It’s existed for all the municipalities for decades, and it’s never been prohibited. And the only thing that the legislature has done over the years is reduced the cap.”

During the October hearing, Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson noted the irony of the attorney general’s position in this case — given his staunch opposition to revisiting wrongful conviction cases

“Your office,” Wilson said, “quite often, is standing here arguing when someone’s freedom or even life is at stake that a change in the law should not benefit that person and their judgment was final.”

 This story has been edited since publication to reflect the number of traffic cases in Ferguson, instead of traffic stops.

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.

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