Missouri Law Puts a Cap on Municipal Piracy

The home of a speed trap and a jail-for-hire tries to adjust.


This past summer, Missouri's governor signed a reform to rein in some of the abuses in the state's municipal courts, misbehavior that had attracted a lot of attention in the aftermath of the Ferguson riots. Previously, towns could not take more than 30 percent of their revenue from traffic fines. As of next year, the ceiling across the state will be 20 percent, and in St. Louis County 12.5 percent.

Though the change hasn't taken effect yet, The Huffington Post reports that it

Maybe they could put a new mall here.

has already had an impact on one of St. Louis County's most notorious—and lucrative—speed traps….The speed trap in question is a tiny stretch of highway in St. Ann, whose population is less than 13,000. Police patrol that tiny portion of the highway near the airport, which has been a reliable source of money, helping to replace millions in lost sales tax revenue after a mall shut down….

Officials in St. Ann are adjusting to the new reality—but only begrudgingly. Police Chief Aaron Jimenez told The Huffington Post he has "mixed feelings" about the effects of SB5. He anticipates that his annual budget—most of which came from tickets his department issued on the small stretch of highway—would take a seven-figure hit.

"Because of Senate Bill Five, I jumped out ahead because I knew I was losing $1.5 million dollars out of my budget," Jimenez said. "I had to lay off 10 officers. Half of them were able to retire."

The article also notes the effects of another change, this one brought not via legislation but through the courts:

A related issue is the St. Ann jail, which came under scrutiny for using set bail amounts to keep poor people behind bars for minor offenses. In particular, holding poor people on behalf of other municipalities had been a significant source of revenue for the city.

The groups Equal Justice Under Law and Arch City Defenders brought a civil rights lawsuit against St. Ann for holding individuals who cannot pay their pre-set bail, which the suit alleges is in violation of the Constitution. Thanks to a resulting court order, St. Ann now has to release anyone arrested on an unsecured bond or on their own recognizance "as soon as practicable after booking," except if the person appears before a judge within 24 hours or under other specific circumstances.

As a result, the population of the jail has diminished considerably.

"For the first time in St. Ann history, in the 19 years that I've been here, we've had zero prisoners starting [last month]. Once in a while we'll have three or four," Jimenez said.

To read the rest, go here.

Bonus link: I discussed such reforms in a Reason piece last year, arguing that they would do more good than the idea, very popular in the pundit classes, of pushing through a sweeping consolidation of the St. Louis region's local governments.

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  1. As of next year, the ceiling across the state will be 20 percent, and in St. Louis County 12.5 percent.

    “How can anyone support a municipality on *that*? We demand a living revenue stream!”

  2. Once upon a time, highway robbery was a crime.

    1. No no, robbery is still legal. This will just up the amount of asset forfeiture in MO.

    2. And when exactly was that (at least when perpetrated by the king’s men)?

  3. I jumped out ahead because I knew I was losing $1.5 million dollars out of my budget,” Jimenez said. “I had to lay off 10 officers. Half of them were able to retire.”

    Just look at the language used. “My budget”. “Losing 1.5 million dollars”.

    Remember, it was never your money. They just let you keep some of it out of the goodness of their hearts.

    1. 10 officers….1.5 million dollars.

      How much did it cost to employ those 10 officers and what revenue did they bring in via tickets?

      This is clearly a case of a police state existing for the purpose of sustaining its own existence. The jail is the same situation.

      They have officers left on the force? Fire every one of the motherfuckers.

      1. I would say $150k wouldn’t be too off. If many were close to retirement then their salaries could have been high. Add on that all the sweet benefits (retirement/pension funds, health insurance, etc.) and you are probably in that region.

  4. St Ann is another little suburb city in StL County, on the opposite side of the airport from Ferguson. The significant difference is St Ann hadn’t got into cannabalizing their own population to feed their police budget.

    In a totally unrelated statistic, St Ann is still a predominately white suburb of STL.

    pushing through a sweeping consolidation of the St. Louis region’s local governments is the real issue that needs to be fixed, first and foremost.

    1. Why, so everyone can suffer under the same bad government?

      1. Sometimes one bad government can be preferable to a bunch of smaller bad governments.

        1. Smaller, even worse governments.

          1. But smaller governments are easier to change, at least in part, than one big one. Libertarians should always err on the side of subsidiarity and local control.

            1. I’d rather not err at all.

              I think that is a good rule of thumb, but I don’t think it always applies. Smaller governments are easier to change, except when they aren’t.

            2. Libertarians should always err on the side of subsidiarity and local control.

              Much to my amazement, when I recently questioned whether recent assertions of federal control over local matters that happened to align with the cause du jour might have long-term bad effects by increasing centralization of power in a plenary Total State, there were two responses:

              (1) Crickets, and
              (2) Fuck that, we got a little victory here, damn the big picture. (I paraphrase)

              1. I seem to recall some interesting and vigorous discussion on the subject recently, but that may have been a different occasion.

                I am sympathetic to the sentiment in (2), though, as well. It’s not as if any court or legislature gives a shit what I think. So I might as well be happy when something comes out the way I like. Little victories may be all we are going to get. Might as well enjoy what you can.

              2. Hey Dean maybe you should have listened to what we actually said instead of pouting.

                1. You’re still angry about the “must be this tall to ride” sign.

              3. Did the feds really assert control or did the locals fiefs appeal for it when calling a State of Emergency?

    2. I read somewhere when Ferguson was exploding that it’s completely possible to be ticketed 5 times on the way to/from work between a suburb and central STL for the same minor infraction, receive 5 different court dates, and be hit with 5 different fines (assuming you actually make it to the hearings) or have 5 different warrants issued for your arrest (if you don’t make the hearing or can’t pay the fine). Due to the hodgepodge of localities who each have jurisdiction over small stretches of the main highways.

      That some jurisdictions were also notorious for ticketing violators — who somehow manage to get time off work and jump through other logistical hoops to make their court hearings — in the court’s parking lot.

      1. They’re parasites. Does any of that surprise you? It’s like trudging waist deep through swamp water and expecting not to get any leeches on you, or walking through an overgrown field and expecting not to have 10 ticks on you by the time you come out.

        1. I do those things. I must just taste bad. I seem to be pretty good at avoiding police attention too, so perhaps the blood-sucking parasite analogy does hold up well.

  5. This is why Pennsylvania will continue to be the only hold-out state on giving local cops the authority to use radar. Our lawmakers hate getting speeding tickets, too.

  6. I’ve always wanted a state to make it law that all fee and fines collected by the state, county, or city goes into a state pot. At the end of the year every resident of the state is sent a check equal to the size of the pot divided by the number of citizens. The money must be sent in the form of a check and cannot be deducted from taxes.

    I think we’d see fine collection drop to essentially nill overnight.

    1. In my state all fees, fines, and confiscated loot go into the state’s general fund. Local governments don’t keep a dime. As a result you see very few speed traps, and when you do it’s usually a state trooper. Stealing property is also not a priority. There’s no profit in it.

      1. I’ve been in Maine for over a week and gone the whole time not seeing a single cop, except possibly when going into Augusta. Very, very pleasant in that way.

        1. Troopers do organized speed traps on 95 near the Maine Mall / 295 exit. That’s the only place I can think of to watch out for.

          1. I usually stayed on 95 to avoid any Portland traffic or anything like those speed traps. Also, I often tended to drive up overnight and that really kept things deserted. But even during the day, when driving around a bit west of Augusta, just…no cops. Like, ever. It was great.

            1. Once I ran into a Border Patrol checkpoint just south of Bangor on 95. Thought it was weird at the time until I started reading Reason.

              1. Yeah, I ran into one about an hour or two north of Bangor on 95 about 15 years ago. I was definitely going “what the fuck is this shit” and it didn’t make sense until later. There was *no one* on the road and then smack in the middle of the highway is a damned BP cruiser waving me over and asking me questions. We had a lot of guns and booze and drugs in the car, but they luckily didn’t seem to care about anything but me not looking like a terrorist coming in from Canada.

                1. Yeah. They had the road blocked, and like your situation we were alone on the road. A tall guy in a green uniform leaned into the car and asked if we were both US citizens, and I said “Yes.” Then he let us go. That was it.

    2. I like it. Gets rid of incentives to use fines as revenue sources, exposes more of the real cost of law enforcement, and gives the money to “the people” who are supposedly the wronged parties in criminal cases.

      1. It would be a political circus, forcing the legislators to pick a loser:

        (1) The public: if they vote against the annual check, members of the public who would have gotten it are going to be pissed.

        (2) The Cop-Industrial Complex. If they vote for the annual check, that money is coming out of the Wrong Pockets.

        It would be epic, especially if you were able to kick off the bill by rolling out a plausibly big number on the annual check:

        “This bill will mean that every family in the great state of AssRapeistan will get a check for $4,000 every year!”

        Now, pubsecs, try to stand up in public and deny families that money.

  7. organized crime at its finest

  8. “I had to lay off 10 officers. Half of them were able to retire.”

    So you laid off 5, not 10.

    Thanks for proving the police never tell the truth.

  9. What did Friedman say? Get the wrong people to do the right thing? It’s totally possible for pols to do the right thing. Libertarian Moment!

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