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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Cities Fight Ferguson-Inspired Ticket Cap

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) - A dozen St. Louis County cities and villages claim in court that a Ferguson-inspired state law limiting how much money they can bring in through tickets is unconstitutional.

The City of Normandy and its Mayor Patrick Green et al. sued Gov. Jay Nixon, Attorney General Chris Koster, the state auditor and its director of Revenue in Cole County Circuit on Thursday.

At issue is Senate Bill 5, which caps the amount municipalities can raise through tickets and fines at 12.5 percent of their annual budget.

The law, approved by the Legislature on May 7 and signed by Nixon on July 9, was inspired by complaints that Ferguson and other nearby towns targeted minorities with excessive traffic stops and fines for code violations as a way to generate revenue.

The suing cities call the law "an extraordinary act of overt discrimination" in that the 12.5 percent cap applies only to municipalities in a county with a charter form of government with a population of more than 950,000.

The only county in Missouri that fits those criteria is St. Louis County.

The second-largest county by population is Jackson in, suburban Kansas City, with 670,000 residents. At the current rate of population growth, Jackson County will not hit 950,000 residents until 2090, according to the complaint.

Municipalities in Missouri's 113 other counties can keep up to 20 percent of their revenue through fines and tickets. "Thus, the non-St. Louis County municipalities are able to retain 60 percent more of their 'fines, bond forfeitures, and court costs' than the stigmatized St. Louis County municipalities," the complaint states.

Before SB 5, all Missouri municipalities could keep up to 30 percent of the revenue generated through their municipal courts.

During a Thursday news conference, Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy called the law an attempt to disenfranchise north St. Louis County communities.

"It was abundantly clear that our elected state representatives care more about political grandstanding and individual advancement than they do about helping to protect and improve the lives of all who they serve," Murphy said.

The plaintiffs claim that SB 5 contains unfair administrative burdens, including a requirement to provide an annual financial report to the state auditor; that a municipal judge certify that the court complies with required procedures; that police departments must be accredited and have written policies on use of force and pursuit; that city ordinances be available to the public; and that the Missouri Supreme Court develop rules regarding conflicts of interest in the court system.

Failure to comply or turn over excess money could result in the transfer of all pending cases to a circuit court, loss of sales tax revenue and disincorporation.

Koster's office responded to the lawsuit with a statement: "SB 5 passed overwhelmingly with strong bipartisan support. The law seeks to stop municipalities from abusing citizens through excessive ticketing practices. My office will vigorously defend the bill against this legal challenge."

The plaintiffs are the cities of Normandy, Cool Valley, Velda Village Hills, Bel Ridge, Bel-Nor, Pagedale, Moline Acres, Vinita Park, Northwoods and Wellston, and the villages of Glen Echo Park and Uplands Park, Mayor Green and Pagedale Mayor Mary Louise Carter, who sued as taxpayers.

They are represented by Sam J. Alton in St. Louis and David H. Pittinsky with Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia.

On Nov. 4, a federal class action against Pagedale in St. Louis claimed the city issued excessive no-traffic fines against residents to generate revenue. That case is pending.

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