CHICAGO — Seven local governments in St. Louis County, Missouri, including Ferguson, face litigation challenging the legality of their municipal court fees.
The lawsuits were filed Tuesday by lawyers from St. Louis University, ArchCity Defenders and the Campbell Law LLC firm in St. Louis County Circuit Court against Beverly Hills, Ferguson, Fenton, Jennings, Pine Lawn, Wellston, and Velda City.
The complaints seek class action status. The complaints question the legality of various court fines under state law and seek compensation for defendants if found excessive or illegal.
Municipal court fines and the heavy reliance on them by some municipalities have drawn scrutiny in the aftermath of the Aug. 9 shooting to death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. Some believe the fines foster poor relations between the police and public.
The complaints' filings follow a report issued by the group in October that looked at the use of court fees by St. Louis County municipalities.
"There are even examples of municipalities proposing budgeted increases in revenue from fines and fees, which would indicate plans to increase ordinance enforcement — ticketing — as a means of enhancing municipal budgetary support," the report read. "While revenue from court fines and fees is not the main source of revenue in every municipality, it is a significant source for many."
In 2013, 40 of St. Louis County's 90 municipalities collected over 10% of their general operating revenue from municipal court fines and fees. Twenty-one of these municipalities in St. Louis County collected over 20% of their general operating revenue from court fines and fees.
Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich is conducting an audit of at least 10 municipal courts — including Ferguson's.