Traffic Court Piracy

Reform struck down


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 in March a judge struck down several aspects of the law.

Before the bill took effect earlier this year, towns could get 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 only—it was pushed much lower, to 12.5 percent.

The law was clearly having an effect. St. Ann, a tiny town that relied on a speed trap for much of its revenue, responded by laying off 10 cops. Another mini-city, Charlack, dissolved its force entirely and contracted instead with a local police cooperative. But on March 28, Circuit Judge Jon E. Beetem ruled that the provisions singling out St. Louis County were forbidden under the Missouri 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. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster plans to appeal the ruling.