Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signs legislation overhauling municipal courts

CHICAGO - Most Missouri local governments face new restrictions on the use of municipal court fines to prop up their budgets, under legislation signed by Gov. Jay Nixon in response to the furor over police tactics in Ferguson.

Senate Bill 5 lowers the percentage of revenue cities and counties can collect and keep from minor traffic violations. Local governments that violate the new limits face mandatory sanctions including the reassignment of pending cases, forfeiting all fines and court costs for distribution to schools, and potential municipal disincorporation.

"This landmark legislation will return our municipal courts to their intended purpose: serving our citizens and protecting the public," Nixon said in signing the bill July 9. "That means, under this bill, cops will stop being revenue agents and go back to being cops: investigating crimes, protecting the public and keeping dangerous criminals off the streets."

The legislation also caps fines and court costs for minor traffic offenses, requires courts to consider individuals' ability to pay those fines, and prohibits sentencing people to jail for failing to pay.

The rules take effect Aug. 28, but municipalities have several years to adjust to some provisions.

The changes tighten caps on the percentage of a local government's operating budget that can come from court-related fine revenue. The amount would be limited to 12.5% in St. Louis County and 20% elsewhere in the state.

Local governments' heavy use of court fine revenue to balance their budgets came under scrutiny in the wake of civil unrest after a white Ferguson police officer's shot to death Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by police officer Darren Wilson, who is white.

A report from the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division found the Ferguson police department engaged in unlawful and discriminatory practices partially driven by the city's reliance on court fine revenue to support its budget.

Critics say stiff court fines imposed by local governments like Ferguson's result in aggressive policing tactics that disproportionally target low-income residents. Along with taxes and other revenue streams in 2010, the city pulled in over $1.3 million in fines and fees collected by its court.

 

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