Missouri High Court Voids Ferguson-Inspired Court Fine Cap
The Missouri Supreme Court has struck down a law — drafted based on city funding information revealed during the investigation into the 2014 Ferguson shooting of Michael Brown — that capped revenues raised from traffic fines at 12.5 percent for a group of municipalities in St. Louis County.
Supreme Court Judge Mary Russell, joined by three other judges, ruled on Tuesday in City of Normandy v. Greitens, that the cap, which applied only to the cities in St. Louis County, was an unconstitutional special law since no other municipality in the state had a cap set at that rate.
The ruling affirmed a decision by Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem, sitting in Jefferson City.
The Missouri Legislature passed the bill following civil unrest in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, which was sparked by the shooting death of an unarmed African-American male, Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.
Despite contentions that Brown was not presenting himself to be a threat in the moments leading up to the shooting, state and federal authorities declined to charge Wilson with a crime.
An investigation conducted subsequent to the investigation, however, concluded that some municipalities in the state were relying too heavily on court fines — primarily from traffic offenses — to fund their local budgets.
In response, the Legislature enacted SB5, which set the cap for using fines to fund budgets for 12 cities in St. Louis County. Other municipalities in the state were capped at using 20 percent of fines to fund their local budgets, Russell said.
Those municipalities mounted a constitutional challenge to the law.
“When the General Assembly chooses to pass a special law, the state can preserve the law from constitutional infirmity by offering evidence of substantial justification if challenged in court,” Russell said.
“The state failed to offer any evidence … of a substantial justification for the special law in the Senate bill,” she said.
Chief Judge Philip Hess of the Court of Appeals of the Eastern District, sitting by designation, dissented, saying he would have upheld the 12.5 percent cap.
The court did uphold a portion of the bill that requires the municipalities to have accredited police departments by 2021. The court rejected a claim that the requirement imposes an unfunded mandate and noted that the Legislature could appropriate funds to cover those costs before then.
The plaintiff municipalities were represented by David Pittinsky and Matthew Vahey of Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr and by Sam Alton, who heads Edelman deRoode in St. Louis.
“The fact is, they’re not pariahs and they’re not second-class citizens,” said Pittinsky of the cities in a statement. “They deserve to be treated the same way all other municipalities in all the other Missouri counties are treated.”
Source: Law Journal