JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — In divided 4-3 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld portions of a lower bench ruling to limit revenues cities can derive from traffic fines.
The high court agreed that a law restricting traffic fines in St. Louis County is unconstitutional. The law had capped revenues from such violations at 12.5 percent for cities within the county.
The Supreme Court opinion calls for the statewide revenue cap of 20 percent to be applied to St. Louis County. Parties involved in the case can still file motions to be heard before the Supreme Court issues its order. The high court’s decision was written by Judge Mary R. Russell, who was joined by three judges.
The issue has its roots in the aftermath of the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, when it became known that cities in the area were leaning heavily on court fines and fees to finance city services.
The state legislature responded with a law – Senate Bill 5 – capping the amount of fines and fees those municipalities could retain from minor traffic violations.
It lowered the percentage all communities can apply toward their annual general operating revenue from 30 percent to 20 percent, but further lowered the amount for cities in St. Louis County to 12.5 percent.
The cities sued in court, securing a decision the law was illegally targeting one area – St. Louis County – for special treatment. The Supreme Court backed up the lower court, saying the state failed to offer any evidence of substantial justification to meet requirements which allow for “special laws” in Missouri.
Portions of the lower court ruling the cities fought to keep in place were overturned by the Supreme Court.
Senate Bill 5’s stipulation for the cities to have accredited police departments was reestablished by the high court. It struck down the cities’ claim that the requirement is an unfunded mandate, noting the claim is premature because the cities don’t have to meet the requirement until 2021, and the state legislature could provide funding between now and then.
The Supreme Court also left in place a component of Senate Bill 5, which calls on the cities to provide an annual financial report to the state auditor. It said the cities failed to prove the requirement placed an undue expense on them.
Judge Philip M. Hess, the chief judge of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, served on the high court for the case in place of Judge Paul C. Wilson.
Hess wrote the dissenting view in which he disagreed with the principal opinion’s holding that Senate Bill 5 contains special laws in violation of the Missouri Constitution. Judge Hess’s opinion would have resulted in the St. Louis County cities conforming to Senate Bill 5’s 12.5 cap on revenues from traffic fines.
State Treasurer Eric Schmitt, who sponsored Senate Bill 5 as a Republican lawmaker in 2015, had mixed feelings about the Supreme Court’s decision.
He said “Although I am disappointed with the decision to create a flat revenue limit applied statewide, the court’s upholding of the majority of the law marks a significant victory for efforts to eliminate these abusive taxation by citation schemes that hit the poor especially hard.”
State Auditor Nicole Galloway released a statement praising the court’s decision upholding Senate Bill 5’s provision for the cities to supply financial statements.
“I am pleased the court has upheld my office’s ability to hold municipal governments accountable to citizens” said Galloway. “My office will continue to aggressively hold cities accountable to ensure they are not using their courts as the main source of revenue to prop up an otherwise unsustainable government.”