Municipal code enforcement is a scourge. Cities claim it’s all about protecting public safety from the hazards of poorly maintained property, but anybody who has ever had to interact with this system knows that it’s all about either using government force to protect property values (as though that’s an appropriate role of police authority) or finding new ways to milk citizens of money. And that’s not even getting into situations where citizens use it to tattle on neighbors to perpetuate feuds.
Head over to Pagedale, Missouri, a small suburb of St. Louis that is 90 percent black and see the town’s money-grubbing ways. Code enforcement citations there have jumped almost 500 percent since 2010. According to research by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the city has handed out more than 2,000 code citations in the past year, enough to give nearly two tickets to every single household in the city of 3,300.
Missouri law restricts the percentage of revenue cities can derive from traffic tickets. That’s not so for other types of municipal citations, so these small communities that often have no decent commercial tax base to support government end up milking its own populace more and more to pay for its own existence.
The rapaciousness of the governments of small communities in the St. Louis area started receiving massive attention following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. A significant amount of outrage was about how police and government treat black citizens as criminals, the corrupt justice system that tries to drain them of all their money, and the financial incentives that have been put into place to reinforce this behavior.
Now the liberty-focused legal eagles at the Institute for Justice are stepping in. They’re filing a class-action lawsuit against the city of Pagedale, saying its municipal system of fines is a civil rights violation. They’ve trolled through the city’s code and list the kind of absurd reasons the city will fine its citizens:
- Having mismatched curtains;
- Walking on the left-hand side of a crosswalk;
- Wearing pants below one’s waist;
- Having holes in window screens, and;
- Having a barbeque in front of a house.
None of these are legitimate public safety issues, but they're certainly a good way to find people to fine. IJ’s initial clients are three citizens who have had to deal with excessive fines and demands from the city. Valarie Whitner has had to take out small loans with high interest rates to stay ahead of all the code enforcement fines. Vincent Blount has been handed $2,800 in fines and the city threatened to raze his home. IJ produced its own video detailing how terrible Pagedale’s system is:
Photo Credit: Institute for Justice