Months after the tragic police incident in Ferguson, Missouri, St. Louis County policing practices have been under scrutiny by critics. One criticism leveled at the county’s policing is the heavy and possibly illegal dependence of municipalities on traffic fines and other civil citations.
According to a recent report by Better Together STL, court collections in eight cities in the county exceed 30 percent of total revenue, possibly violating state law.
Macks Creek Speed Trap
From the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, Macks Creek, a town with fewer than 300 residents, was Missouri’s most notorious speed trap. Located in mid-Missouri along Highway 54, the city collected more than 76 percent of its revenue from traffic fines.
Residents had little reason to object, because travelers from other towns effectively subsidized the town.
That changed in 1995 when Macks Creek police ticketed a state legislator who later sponsored legislation capping the proportion of revenue that can come from traffic fines.
Every dollar exceeding the 30 percent “Macks Creek Law” cap is transferred to the state, for use as education funding. Failure to comply with the law can result in the suspension of the city’s authority to enforce traffic laws.
Unable to use law enforcement to keep itself afloat financially, Macks Creek quickly went bankrupt. Audits of the city’s finances discovered mismanagement of funds, wasteful no-bid contacts, and failure to keep accurate books.
‘Minefield of Police Cars’
Although the law effectively dealt with Macks Creek, it has been largely ignored in St. Louis County.
Because many of the county’s 90 municipalities are very small, they tend to have equally small tax bases. As a result, many of these cities are highly reliant on fines and traffic tickets for revenue.
These municipalities are not evenly distributed across St. Louis County, but clustered in the northern area of the county.
Of the twenty cities in the county with fine collections exceeding 20 percent of total revenue, 13 are contiguous with one another in a 25 square-mile section.
Navigating this minefield of police cars, with officers watching for any infraction, is a daily burden for local residents, who have pass through many of these small municipalities to go to work or the store.
Ignoring the Law
State officials have initiated lawsuits and audits on some but not all possible violators of the Macks Creek Law.
Such policing tactics are not new, and reports of possible cap infractions date back to the law’s passage.
In its current form, the law lacks provisions for regular audits and other enforcement mechanisms.
Watching the Watchers
Without a regular process to investigate whether cities are actually following state law, enforcement of the Macks Creek Law may fade as national attention on the state’s policing tactics subsides.
Another possible reform would be to lower the law’s cap, further discouraging misuse of police resources. Many cities come in just under the 30 percent cap, relying on fines for more than 20 percent of their revenue.
Joseph Miller ([email protected]) is a policy analyst with the Show-Me Institute, based in Saint Louis, Missouri.
“Better Together STL Public Safety Municipal Courts Report,” Missouri Council for a Better Economy, http://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/better-together-stl-public-safety-municipal-courts-report/