Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) signed a bill placing a cap on the proportion of revenue cities and counties can collect from traffic enforcement and capping the total amount of fines and penalties on traffic violations.
The new law, effective August 28, also includes provisions for the dissolution of local governments refusing to comply with the reform measures.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Glendale), says towns in his district were using traffic enforcement to bolster flagging revenues.
“After [the unrest in] Ferguson, sometime last fall, there was an inventory taken that people took around the state, but particularly in St. Louis County, and [they] found that in St. Louis County alone there were 14 municipalities where traffic tickets and fines were the biggest source of revenue,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt says the problem of policing for profit seems to be concentrated in and around the St. Louis metropolitan area.
“There were 81 municipal courts in St. Louis County, which is 61 more than any other circuit, and some circuits include multiple counties,” Schmitt said. “We saw a real concentration of the problem. [As someone] who grew up in St. Louis County and represents a large chunk of St. Louis County, it’s important for the public to have the maximum amount of reform they could have.”
Speed Traps and Fine Caps
Schmitt says the bill removes cities’ ability to maximize fine revenue by capping the amount of fines a person can be charged.
“Speed traps were paying for most municipality budget holes, and we’ll have to compare them down the road,” Schmitt said. “The $300 cap is important when you consider that for a $100 fine, usually set with a night court date so people have trouble getting there or are forced to choose between paying a fine or paying for child care—since no kids are allowed at court—this situation often ended in a failure to appear charge being added on. Suddenly, you have a $100 fine turn into an $800 one.
“Basically, people were being used as ATMs,” said Schmitt. “Citizens and [people passing by became] revenue generators.”
Policing for Safety, Not Profit
Sarah Rossi, director of advocacy and policy with the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the new law makes needed changes to the cities’ fiscal and judicial systems.
“Revenues should not be the goal of law enforcement under any circumstance,” Rossi said. “Law enforcement should be tasked with public safety, not paying their own salaries or providing general operating funds. That is what public safety levies and other levies are for.”
Rossi says people should be empowered to fight back against abusive governments.
“The government works for its people, not the other way around,” Rossi said. “If a municipality continues to take advantage of its populace to fill its coffers, then that populace should be allowed recourse.
“Generally, that manifests in voting for or against public officials,” Rossi said. “In this case, that recourse happens to be disincorporation.”
Andrea Dillon ([email protected]) writes from Holly Springs, North Carolina.