Local Government

Missouri Judge Weakens Law to Rein in Traffic-Court Piracy

Towns in St. Louis County won't face tighter caps than the rest of the state.

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St. Louis Pirates

Many Missouri towns, especially in the St. Louis area, are infamous for using speed traps, draconian court fees, and other types of traffic-court piracy to keep their budgets in the black. A recent reform was aimed at reining in these abuses, but a judge just struck down several segments of the law.

Before the bill took effect earlier this year, towns could take as much as 30 percent of their revenue from traffic enforcement. Under the new order, the ceiling in most of the state was lowered to 20 percent. But in "any county with a charter form of government and with more than nine hundred fifty thousand inhabitants"—that is, in St. Louis County—it was cut much lower, to 12.5 percent.

The law was clearly having an effect. One tiny town that relied on a speed trap for much of its revenue responded by laying off 10 cops. Another mini-city dissolved its force entirely and contracted instead with a local police cooperative. But yesterday Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem ruled that the provisions singling out St. Louis County were a "special law" and therefore forbidden under the state constitution. The 20 percent cap will now be imposed across the state evenly.

Beetem also struck down a statewide requirement that towns submit annual reports on the revenues they receive from traffic violations and related court costs, deeming this an unfunded mandate.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that that the legislator behind the law, Republican state senator Eric Schmitt, is urging the state attorney general to appeal the ruling. The paper adds that another reform may be on the way:

[Sam] Alton, a city attorney in Pagedale and municipal judge and prosecutor in several other north St. Louis County municipalities, said he hopes the decision sends a message to Schmitt and other lawmakers who are drafting a new bill that would further limit municipal courts by restricting what they can raise from nontraffic-related ordinances, such as housing code violations.

While current versions of that bill do not have special provisions that apply only to St. Louis County, Alton said he believes the intent is the same.

"This ought to give the Legislature a bit of pause," he said.

If Beetam's ruling survives an appeal, that no doubt will make Schmitt and company pause before singling out St. Louis County for stronger restrictions. But I can't see any legal reason—the politics may be another matter—why they should feel restrained from passing a bill that treats all counties equally.

Bonus link: After the Ferguson riots, many pundits argued that the St. Louis region could battle these municipal abuses with a mass consolidation of city and county governments. Drawing on the late Elinor Ostrom's work, I argued that reforms like these bills make more sense.

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28 responses to “Missouri Judge Weakens Law to Rein in Traffic-Court Piracy

  1. You know who else got rid of tighter caps?

    1. Synchronized swimmers?

    2. Bald people?

    3. Donald Trump’s greasy hairpiece?

    4. Gabby Giffords?

      1. Sick, dude! Coffee just came out of my nose.

      2. TOO SOON!

  2. “The law was clearly having an effect. One tiny town that relied on a speed trap for much of its revenue responded by laying off 10 cops. Another mini-city dissolved its force entirely and contracted instead with a local police cooperative. But yesterday Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem ruled that the provisions singling out St. Louis County were a “special law” and therefore forbidden under the state constitution. The 20 percent cap will now be imposed across the state evenly.”

    In that case, they should just lower it to 12.5% statewide.

    Or make it illegal for cities to get *any* of their funding from traffic tickets and put all the fines into a statewide general fund so that the money doesn’t directly benefit the police stations that engage in the ticketing.

    1. But this would give incentive to the state to increase a) state troopers/hwy patrol, and b) provide more services to towns that generate more income for the state.

      I think the cash from tickets should be repaid to ALL residents of the state on an equal amount, at tax season, like a mutual insurance company. After all, the punishment for the perpetrator remains and the people put at risk — other residents of the state — would gain the benefit.

      1. That seems pretty dangerous to me and like a good way to incentivize support for draconian law enforcement and higher fines. The ‘good’ people who don’t run foul of the law and who probably vote at higher rates will love getting a kickback.

      2. Yeah, this also has perverse incentives, it just spreads them around more. The only solution is strict liability for actual damage. Fuck tickets, fuck arbitrary limits, and fuck incentivizing shakedowns.

        1. as the Bard said: whoop there it is

    2. Louisiana parishes and municipalities can only keep $2 from each speeding ticket unless the infraction is for over 9 mph over the limit. This created an incentive to stop writing petty speeding tickets yet still fine the egregious ones.

      Never underestimate the inventiveness of petty tyrants. The key weakness in that law is the ‘speeding’ provision.
      Now some towns write tons of petty tickets for infractions other than speeding. Your headlights weren’t aimed correctly. You didn’t signal far enough ahead of your turn. etc. Some are even writing tickets for non-existent infractions; driving too slow or my favorite, not having an inspection sticker on your light duty trailer.

      In some ways things are better, in others, worse. Stopping them from using the money themselves at all is th sonly fix.

      1. Anyone with a ticket should immediately ask for a change of venue.

        “If the court gets paid to convict me what does that do for my chances of an acquittal?”

  3. “Many Missouri towns, especially in the St. Louis area, are infamous for using speed traps, draconian court fees, and other types of traffic-court piracy to keep their budgets in the black.”

    Yeah also many cities and states nationwide. Probably most of them actually.

    1. No doubt.

      However, this is a particular problem for the constellation of mini-cities of St. Louis County due to their geography. If your transgression is relatively minor — for example, expired license tags — it is completely possible to get multiple tickets and required court appearances in the span of 10 miles. If you can’t make one of those appearances (which could even be scheduled at the same time/day of each other), you are assessed more fines and a warrant goes out for your arrest.

    2. Go to Google maps, search “St Ann Missouri” note the 100 yards of I70 that pass through St. Ann (which you can’t even get to without leaving St. Ann. Guess where St. Ann writes all their tickets.

      This is really a special case. This is above and beyond what I’ve seen anywhere else. Less than 24 hours after this ruling the cops suddenly cared about traffic tickets again after not caring for months (I saw overy 10 in my 10 mile trip down I270 near where it crosses 70 in St louis). It is truly spectacular how abusive municipalities are to the citizenry, and anyone un lucky enough to have to pass through… all so some little assholery can get elected to mayor in some 1 square mile neighborhood and treat it like their own little kingdom.

  4. [Sam] Alton, a city attorney in Pagedale and municipal judge and prosecutor in several other north St. Louis County municipalities, said he hopes the decision sends a message to Schmitt and other lawmakers

    Oh, I hope and pray he’s correct – and the message they get is loud and clear. “If you expect the weasels to obey the law you’re going to have to run a few of them through the woodchipper to make an example for the rest of them.” I’d suggest starting with Sam Alton.

  5. But yesterday Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem ruled that the provisions singling out St. Louis County were a “special law” and therefore forbidden under the state constitution.

    So it’s safe to assume that there’s no progressive taxation targeting a special class of income earners? There are no taxes that target a specific class of businesses? There are no regulations that only affect a few businesses or individuals?

    1. Um, no.

      Section 42. No local or special law shall be passed unless a notice, setting forth the intention to apply therefor and the substance of the contemplated law, shall have been published in the locality where the matter or thing to be affected is situated at least thirty days prior to the introduction of the bill into the general assembly and in the manner provided by law. Proof of publication shall be filed with the general assembly before the act shall be passed and the notice shall be recited in the act.

  6. My initial reaction was the same as yours, but I have looked more closely at St. Louis, and there are some ridiculously small “cities” that are no bigger than neighborhoods. Some of them really should dissolve or combine in order to no longer have to pay their tiny, useless municipal force.

    This bill is good too, though.

    1. If a town can’t sustain itself with these tighter restrictions, let it dissolve or combine on its own. That’s different from ramming through a consolidation for everyone.

    2. I suspect a lot of those “cities” were founded to avoid being absorbed into another city, particularly for local control over zoning. This is happening all over Metro Atlanta.

      1. Aha. I was wondering what was happening with the crazy quilt patchwork of impossibly small counties.

      2. That’s the burn though. In St. Louis they’re the remains of racism and white flight… black people move in, elect their guy and rather than fixing the problem “their guy” tells them that they’ll lose control of issues if they merge… thus the neighborhood of a couple hundred ends up cheerfully having to support a whole bureaucracy.

    3. Country Club Hills is literally smaller than the now abandoned Jamestown Mall a couple miles to its nort.

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