Why did a Missouri court strike down a law limiting cities' revenues from fines?

A Missouri judge on Monday overturned a law enacted in the wake of the US Department of Justice's investigation into Ferguson's policing practices.

Huy Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP/File
Ferguson, Mo., police officers stand by during a protest in 2014.

A Missouri judge ruled Monday against a law aimed at reforming the state’s ticketing practices and improving its law enforcement procedures.

That legislation, Senate Bill 5 (SB5), was passed last year amid the criticisms of Missouri’s justice systems that came in the wake of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. That incident sparked a wave of protests and a United States Department of Justice probe into Ferguson’s policing methods, including the way that officers went about collecting money from tickets and court fees.

SB5 focused on limiting cities' ability to take in a large percentage of their revenue from court costs and fines resulting from traffic violations. The law curbed municipalities' general operating revenue from traffic fines, lowering ticket revenue from 30 to 20 percent, and only 12.5 percent in St. Louis County. It also required annual reviews of cities' revenue streams to be submitted to state officials.

If those limits were broken, or the annual filings not completed on time, the law provided for harsh penalties to the cities. Sales tax revenue would not be passed on to city governments, and an election for the complete disincorporation of the civic area (dissolving a city government) would be held in the event of such a violation.

The law also included provisions for all municipalities to have police departments' policies regarding use of force and the collection of "crime and police stop data" available in written form.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled Monday that SB5 was unconstitutional following a challenge to the law headed by several St. Louis County cities. (Ferguson was not among them.) In his decision, Judge Beetem wrote that controls enacted by SB5 were an "unfunded mandate" at odds with Missouri’s constitution.

"Obviously I'm elated, and I know the municipalities that are involved are elated," Sam Alton, one of the plaintiffs attorneys, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Others, however, were not as thrilled about the repealed rules, saying that they were passed to protect citizens from government exploitation.

"This is another example of why so many Missourians have lost faith in government, the justice system and big institutions because they make them feel powerless and used," Sen. Eric Schmitt, from St. Louis County, wrote in a statement, according to The Associated Press. "For years citizens have been abused by local bureaucrats who have treated them like ATMs to fund their bloated budgets, salaries and perks."

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said that SB5 brought "meaningful and much-needed steps to end the unacceptable abuses of the municipal court system in the St. Louis region," according to the AP. Mr. Nixon also said that he would work with legislators to modify the law in order to reenact it.

Despite Monday’s ruling, the cities' victory may be short-lived. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced Tuesday that he would move forward in an appeal to Beetem’s decision.

"A municipality should not depend upon prosecuting its citizens in order to fund the cornerstone functions of government," he said in a statement.

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