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Missouri Continues Efforts at Municipal Court Reform

14 Jul 2016 8:35 AM | Anonymous

Following up on Senate Bill 5 from last year, which reacted to the DOJ's critical report of the Ferguson Municipal Court system, this year Senate Bill 572 was passed and has been signed by the Governor.

The Governor's staff prepared the following statement for him to proclaim: "The purpose of municipal courts is to protect our communities, not profit from them," said Gov. Nixon. "This bill builds on the landmark reform legislation I called for and signed last year, and will help ensure all our municipal courts operate with fairness, openness and accountability."

So, what does SB572 really do?  First, understand that it has a lot of provisions and is not a focused bill.  It requires municipalities in St. Louis County to review their construction codes by 2018, but not to adopt any particular updates.  So, just not sure what that will accomplish or why the Missouri Senate needed to tell municipalities in St. Louis County to do that.

But the meat of the SB and what Gov. Nixon was talking about is that the act changes the definition of court costs to exclude any certified costs, and to include fines added to the annual real estate tax bill or a special tax bill of a property owner for the cost of nuisance abatement and removal. The definition of minor traffic violation is modified to include traffic ordinance violations for which no points are assessed to a driver's driving record and amended charges for any minor traffic violation and adds a definition for municipal ordinance violations.

The maximum allowable fine for minor traffic violations has been lowered from three hundred dollars to two hundred twenty-five dollars. For municipal ordinance violations committed within a twelve month period beginning with the first violation: the maximum allowable fine is two hundred dollars for the first offense, two hundred seventy-five dollars for the second offense, three hundred fifty dollars for the third offense, and four hundred fifty dollars for the fourth and subsequent offenses. No court costs shall be charged to defendants found to be indigent. Municipal courts are also required to not charge defendants for costs associated with community service alternatives.

Municipal ordinance violations and amended charges for municipal ordinance violations are added to the calculation limiting the percentage of annual general operating revenue that can come from fines and court costs for minor violations and to provisions regarding fines, imprisonment, and court costs in municipal court cases. Municipal ordinance violations are also added to municipal disincorporation provisions if a municipality fails to remit excess annual general operating revenue to the Department of Revenue for the county school fund and the disincorporation threshold has been lowered from sixty percent to a majority of participating voters.
This act also specifies that the state is not liable for the debts of a municipality that is financially insolvent.  So, Missouri has effectively limited the amount of proceeds that municipalities can generate through policing  and the Courts, which will put many municipalities into financial jeopardy so the State needed to clarify they weren't going to be responsible for those messes.

While SB572 does impose a limit on the number of municipalities one can be a judge in - 5 (remember we are talking about a lot of small communities here where muni court is once or twice a month at night), it does nothing to address the requirement for being a municipal court judge.  That's right, if you are between the ages of 21-75 and live in the State of Missouri, you can be a municipal judge.  A law degree is not needed - maybe that would be a good place to start on reforming our municipal court system.

Tim West, LAKC Board of Directors
MO Legislative Monitor

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