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The St. Louis County Municipal Court Racket

September 18, 2014 Crime, Featured, Ferguson, St. Louis County 16 Comments

Since Michael Brown was shot & killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, the entire country has learned a dirty little secret: some of our municipalities make big money ticketing & arresting our residents, often minorities. Just as corporations that operate  for-profit prisons seek more prisoners, some of the 90 unsustainable municipalities within St. Louis County need to stop people driving through their tiny municipal borders to keep the municipal coffers full:

Unfortunately, for many of the poorest citizens of the region, the municipal courts and police departments inflict a kind of low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay without a meaningful inquiry into whether an individual has the means to pay. (ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper)

I recommend reading all 37 pages of the ArchCity Defenders: Municipal Courts White Paper, it’s an eye-opener! They looked at 60 courts and found “approximately thirty of those courts did engage in at least one of these [illegal and harmful] practices.” The report focuses on the three “chronic offenders”: Bel-Ridge, Florissant, and…Ferguson.

A personal friend has two citations from Vinita Park, population 1880, but the fine amounts aren’t on the citations he was issued. Neither of his citations were for speeding.

The fine amount doesn't appear on the citation, note is it online. Nobody at the company in Georgia knows the fine amounts either.
The fine amount doesn’t appear on the citation, note is it online. Nobody at the company in Georgia knows the fine amounts either. You’ve got to show up in court or call to get the amount to pay.

Logging online and entering your citation number doesn’t bring up the fine amount either, you must know it to enter and pay it. Late fees, of an unknown amount, are added. A bench warrant is issued if you miss the court date.  My friend finally reached a person by phone at Vinita Park City Hall that could tell him the amounts. Earlier calls went unanswered.

Yesterday I posted about the Flordell Hills, pop 822, city website which doesn’t list the elected officials, but has a detailed court section accepting online payments.  Their new police force begins October 1st.

More affluent municipalities, such as Chesterfield, don’t need to use such tactics to survive financially.  Their residents & visitors would never tolerate the injustices.

The poor in the region live in or drive through these predatory municipalities daily. Ferguson is taking steps toward change.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. Mark says:

    If you can’t do the time don’t do the crime. Most people can drive their cars safely and not accumulate bench warrants. Lets change the conversation to why such a large portion of our population continues to drive and disobey traffic laws. No more excuses!

    • You obviously didn’t read the ArchCity Defenders paper I recommenced.

      • Mark says:

        I skimmed it and its the same old thing, making excuses for people who don’t follow the rules. I grew up with no money as did many of my friends. It was a struggle to make enough money to keep our crappy cars running and to keep insurance on them. Some of the people I knew went bare but they knew the rules, that if they were caught without insurance it would cost them plenty and sometimes it did. What they didn’t do is try to blame the system which is the same for everyone. People get pulled over because they give the police a reason to do so. There are enough of these people that no police department needs to go after people who are not breaking the rules. Especially telling is the repeat offenders.

        • GMichaud says:

          Mark I have to agree with NL7, unless you are an absolute robot you are likely breaking the law numerous times a day (complete stop at stop sign, no turn signal, ad infinitum) (seldom would any of these be true public safety concerns)

          So you skimmed the ArchCity Defenders paper did you? and now you’re ready to pronounce yourself correct.
          The policing and government cartel is it is clearly corrupt, in addition to the ArchCity article here is a Washington Post article about the exploitation that has developed in St. Louis County.
          At this point there are judges and other regional leaders that are questioning what is going on. There are articles in the Post Dispatch about this subject, check it out.
          As the discussion here on Urban Review indicates, part of the problem is revenue, however increasing revenue through discrimination (poor, black or whatever) or even oppression is not the answer. (How in the hell can Ferguson issue 3 times the number of tickets as their population or Country Club Hills have arrest warrants 26 times their population? (check washpost)
          The kicker is that Kansas City and its suburbs have rates of tickets issuance and arrest warrants significantly less than most of the St. Louis region including the city.
          I guess this means the poor and minority communities are better drivers in Kansas City?
          Do some real analysis.

    • NL7 says:

      You never speed or fail to use a turn signal for the appropriate distance? It’s clear that police pull people over selectively for minor driving infractions that are exceedingly common. Essentially all drivers exceed the speed limit by a few miles.
      Of course, a broader problem is that some offenses are so vague and subjective – such as “driving suspiciously” or “driving too cautiously” or “moving within the lane” – that the police can pull over anybody they follow for more than a minute or two. And this is ignoring situations like the rigged stop light, where police were given control of a button to turn a flashing yellow light into a solid yellow at the moment a car was too close to stop, while other cops down the street waited to hand out red light tickets.
      These infractions are overwhelmingly minor or even irrelevant to safety. A registration violation is almost purely a revenue issue. The rules are not about safety. Rather than selectively enforcing dumb rules that are unrelated to safety, we should stop charging exorbitant fees. And the manner in which municipal courts attempt to trick residents into mistakes that cost further fees is shameful and unrelated to willingness to follow the rules – the example above is a ticket that fails to styate the amount due, specifically to trick people into incurring late fees and charges.

  2. JZ71 says:

    In many ways, this is tied to taxes, in general, and sales taxes, in particular. From a recent Post-Dispatch article*, here’s one glaring example: “St. Ann issued more than four times as many traffic citations, 18,052, in 2013 than in 2005.” This coincides with St. Ann’s loss of Northwest Plaza as a major revenue source in their annual budget. Many of these north county burgs, even if they had a viable retail tax base, have seen them shrink as incomes have fallen and/or stores have moved to greener pastures. Residents resist property tax increases, yet still want the same level, or a higher level, of services. Add in the promises made, in better times, to city employees regarding pensions and the obligations to repay bond money spent on projects assuming a certain level of future (now current) revenues, and you end up with the current dynamic. Money has to come from somewhere, and if it’s not coming from sales taxes, property taxes or earnings taxes, what’s left? Fees! Want to “fix” the “problem”? Increase other direct taxes AND reduce budgets. And, yes, that may mean reducing pensions, reducing headcounts and reducing services – THERE IS NO “FREE” MONEY! Until we understand the concept that we each get what we pay for, this insanity will, unfortunately, continue . . . .


    • The amount the region consumes is limited. With 90 municipals in St. Louis County alone we can’t expect the sales taxes collected to neatly happen where the revenue is needed.

      We can’t expect lower income citizens to pay more in property taxes because their area is lacking in retail sales tax revenue!

      • JZ71 says:

        I agree that consolidation is likely the best solution, but how do we get there?! The “haves” have absolutely no interest in assuming the obligations of the “have nots”. Just look at the discussions and the resolutions regarding the city rejoining the county as another city in the county – multiple cities have passed resolutions opposing the idea (and there are not a lot of fiscal implications – the city already has police, fire and schools covered).

        And I’m not saying that sales taxes are the only revenue source that can be increased. Property taxes are relatively low around here (my brother pays 4 times as much in New Jersey!), yet voters can’t seemed to be convinced to increase them unless their schools are falling down (“It’s for the kids”).

        The big reason these small munis use fines as a major revenue source is the same reason other county munis throw out TIF’s and chase sales taxes – “someone else”, who, presumably, lives outside the “city” is forced to pay for services consumed inside said “city”. If it costs you $200,000 or $300.000 to run a small police department, and it generates $800,000 or $1,000,000, you do the math – it’s ALL about the dollars . . . .

        • The region is stagnant: population, incomes, job growth, etc. Hopefully everyone will realize we could all do better if we stop selfishly defending fiefdoms, the status quo.

          • JZ71 says:

            Easier said than done! I drive through one of these “fiefdoms” – Bella Villa – every day, when I go to work. Most of the time, one of their three police cars is out doing traffic enforcement on “their” six-block-long stretch of Bayless Avenue. If you ask the good citizens of Bella Villa, I’m pretty sure that most would say that they’re pretty happy with the current situation – the police are visible, few people speed and the court fees cover a big chunk of the budget for a city of 729.

            I agree, in the bigger scheme of things, that letting the county police provide police services, here and elsewhere, would be the best, most rational, most cost-effective decision. But you and I don’t get to decide, we don’t get a vote on the issue, just the residents of Bella Villa get to decide. It essentially costs them, individually, nothing to have an over-the-top, local police presence. You may call that selfish, but the residents, there, just look at that as good government!

            The only way to get this to change is to convince the state legislature and the governor that monies from traffic enforcement either have to be capped at some number that matches local population, be capped at a maximum percentage of the entity’s total annual budget and/or any monies generated be distributed countywide on a per capita basis. Until the financial incentive disappears, the lure of easy money, paid mostly by nonresidents, will be very hard to overcome, and especially in economically depressed areas.

        • GMichaud says:

          I wondered how to “get there” myself. The state could pass directives of various types, and in fact state law now allows these tiny muni’s to incorporate.
          It is not that the state knows any more than anyone else, I think they are doing a horrible job on the school systems of Missouri for instance. But right now it is the only game in town that can cause change, or the Feds, I don’t think it will be voluntary.
          I’m not even against the small muni’s necessarily, it just is policing cannot become a profit center. Not if justice is to served. Otherwise policing comes off as thugs shaking down the most vulnerable. And unfortunately I think too much of the community feels that way. With the obscene number of arrest warrants in St. Louis, it is no wonder our prisons are full.
          The central problem I see is that we have to make significant changes in many areas but the mechanics of society are so paralyzed that nothing is done. Even obvious wrongs are not corrected.
          So yes the State of Missouri probably needs to act, if not then the Feds, what is going on in policing cannot continue and have justice be served at the same time.
          I am actually surprised a Missouri State Representative that represents Ferguson or other similar districts have not proposed legislation that that corrects at what should be best described as local governmental abuses of their citizens.

          • JZ71 says:

            The fundamental problem is the high number of municipal courts, compunded by an opaque system for administering justice. A traffic ticket should not end up as arrest warrant except in extreme citcumstances. I lived in Denver for many years and received several tickets. On the back of the ticket was the fine schedule, and the fines were automatically reduced if you paid before the court date / within 20 days*. Here, it seems like system is shaped to keep bottom-feeding, “traffic law” lawyers employed (by using their connections to boost revenues for both the cities and themselves) and/or to create a no-win situation where a ticket for a burned-out headlight mushrooms into an arrest warrant (with hundreds of dollars in fines and “fees”) from some podunk court, NOT to actually enhance traffic safety. It’s assinine to be wasting resources transferring “prisoners” from jail to jail over multiple petty warrants – a unified system would do a better job of tracking missed court dates and for creating a realistic system for both imposing fines and resolving cases in a timely manner.


    • moe says:

      How about reducing spending for such things as a $30 million trolley and other frivolities. Every time people want to spend…. we hear: it’s grant money, it’s free, the Feds are footing most of the bill. That’s US. One can’t complain about high taxes on one hand and then expect grants and free handouts with the other.

      • JZ71 says:

        Unfortunately, the problem in NoCo isn’t spending on frivolities, it’s spending on basic services and legacy costs left over from better times. Assessed values in much of NoCo lag those in other parts of the county, and major retail is either leaving the area or not going there in the first place, resulting in fewer local sales taxes and sales tax opportunities. The other 800 pound gorilla in the room is the whole idea of using bond issues to cover gaps in city budgets. A bond issue is no different than a mortgage – you’re borrowing money now and you pay it back, with interest, over time. Between bonded indebtedness and un(der)funded pensions, many governments are seeing a major portion of their annual budgets being spoken for (and spent on) things that were spoken for years ago.

        As for “reducing spending”, name one basic service that we don’t need or want. Do we sell off parks? Close libraries? Not plow the streets after snowstorms? Close fire stations? Not pave roads or fill potholes? Cut back on police? There’s an existing constituency foe EVERY program and service the government provides, and they WILL scream, long and loud, should anyone dare try and reduce their very needed and valuable program. Personally, I have no problem looking at reduced salaries and pensions, but public employee unions have been very successful in insulating their memebers from the realities faced by workers in the “real” world.

  3. NL7 says:

    I’m skeptical that Ferguson or these other communities will get much reform. It’s a lot of money to just lose. I expect some reforms, some showy attempt at racial inclusion, but ultimately the money is there and I am skeptical they will walk away from it.
    It may take state action to set caps on how much the fees can be. Though it may be better to force the communities to reroute the fee money into a big pot, rather than letting them keep the scalps. If the fees were shared statewide or went to specific county-wide programs, for example, then the incentive to extort people is greatly diminished. Public choice theory.
    If this is really an issue of deterrence and not of revenue raising, then the municipalities need not keep the fee money.

  4. Greg says:

    This is a difficult issue for me.
    There are some towns, like Bella Villa, where enforcement is carried out with 0% tolerance for any infraction. I have had my registration stickers stolen multiple times and have stopped putting them on my plates because I’m tired of having to pay to replace them. My last set was off of my plates (in my glove box) for over a year without a problem before a drive through Bella Villa at the speed limit. The cop pulled me over, I showed him the stickers and I still got a ticket. I actually went to court to plead my case (bringing letters I sent to the Governor and Department of Revenue several years ago saying that Missouri should switch to stickers on the windshield like many other states).. which got me a $30 reduction in my fine.

    Having said that, the vast majority of tickets issued are legitimate violations. (Legally, mine was but I still consider it a letter of the law vs. spirit of the law issue.) Should we just throw away legal violations because someone can’t pay? That just allows that individual to get off for free. Should we keep adding additional fines and penalties (such as loss of drivers license) when someone legitimately can’t pay? That’s where I think the changes need to be made.

    If someone breaks the law and is caught.. they should be held responsible for their activity. But the biggest improvement will probably be made by allowing fines to be converted into community service at a specified dollar value per hour. That would be a win-win situation, both for those found guilty and the community.


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