Missouri County Judge Overturns Policing for Profit Reforms

Published May 18, 2016

A Missouri county judge overturned a state law passed in 2015 placing restrictions on the proportion of revenue city and county governments can collect from traffic enforcement and capping the total amount of fines and penalties charged to taxpayers for traffic violations.

In April, Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled in favor of several city governments in St. Louis County suing the state. Lawyers representing the city governments argued the legislation unfairly targeted their cities with more restrictions than other cities.

The law, which went into effect in August 2015, also included consequences for local governments refusing to comply with the reform measures. The state government is appealing the decision.

Capping Traffic Fine Revenue

Rachel Payton, deputy director of the Missouri chapter of Americans for Prosperity, says a Missouri law already restricts policing for profit, but enforcement of the law, called the Macks Creek Law, has been sporadic.

In 1995, law enforcement officers in Macks Creek, Missouri ticketed a state lawmaker, inspiring him to sponsor 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 to help pay for education expenses.

“Missouri has … the Macks Creek Law,” Payton said. “This little town down by the Lake of the Ozarks literally got 90 percent of its revenue from ticketing people.”

Cops and Robbers

Payton says using police as tax collectors endangers public safety.

“Police [now] aren’t in the position of law enforcement or making sure there’s peace on the street,” Payton said. “They’re revenue generators. They have to go out and make money for the city, and that’s a really difficult position to be in.”

Scott Shackford, an associate editor at Reason, a publication of the Reason Foundation, says using police to boost government revenue incentivizes the wrong behaviors.

“When municipalities use law enforcement to generate profits, the city’s financial wellbeing requires crime to survive,” Shackford said. “In these small communities that don’t have a lot of crime—these small, little suburban areas—they have to find crime. They have to find ways to make money, so they look to whatever little reason they can come up with to pull someone over and cite them.”

Simplify, Simplify

Shackford says reducing the size and complexity of government would help guard people’s civil rights.

“These municipalities have developed these incredibly complex court systems that can probably be eliminated,” Shackford says. “They could be reduced significantly. Citizens have to pay attention to what their municipalities are doing and consider the cost of it. I think in a lot of situations, citizens only think about what they get from government and not the burdens that are being placed on them and the relationships between those things.”

Danedri Herbert ([email protected]) writes from Kansas City, Kansas.