Fighting for Fines

Citation limits


Missouri legislators in 2014 passed a law capping the percentage of money municipalities could draw from traffic citations to fund their budgets. The impetus for the bill was a media blitz focused on St. Louis County in the wake of the Ferguson protests. Court systems in small communities were funding themselves by targeting people with frequent fines and complicated citation systems.

The new law allows most Missouri cities to derive 20 percent of their budgets from traffic citations. But for communities within St. Louis County, the number is 12.5 percent. For places without much of a tax base, the restrictions are a threat to the bottom line. For example, Cool Water, a small town with a population of about 1,200—84 percent of whom are black—depended on court fines and fees for a full 55 percent of its budget.

Rather than looking for alternative funding methods or scaling down their governments, 12 of these small communities, including Cool Water, are suing the state to defend their right to collect more. They argue that targeting St. Louis County with a lower cap than other counties enjoy is unconstitutional under state law.