Following the protests over Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Mo., last year, aggressive ticketing in St. Louis County’s towns and cities elicited national scrutiny. That practice also caught the attention of the Missouri General Assembly, which clamped down on ticket-happy policing.
But the new law is having some unintended consequences. And some of St. Louis County’s municipal leaders are fighting back.
When the Missouri Legislature altered how towns and cities can collect traffic fine revenue, it was supposed to help people like Jaquin Holmes. The St. Louis resident says he’s been hassled by municipal police departments around here, many of which garnered a bad reputation for writing lots and lots of tickets.
“You can see that we don’t have any oversight. We don’t have any say. And it’s really an oppressive system,” Holmes says.
Missouri lawmakers sought to change that system by curbing the percentage of traffic fine revenue cities could incorporate into their budgets. For St. Louis County cities, the threshold dropped from 30 percent to 12.5 percent. And it dropped from 30 to 20 percent in the rest of the state.
The Ferguson unrest magnified the issue, especially after aggressive ticketing was cited as a major source of tension between African-American motorists and law enforcement.
The new law won’t affect the city of Ferguson that much, because traffic fines constitute a relatively low percentage of that town’s budget. Instead, it will hurt cities like Cool Valley — a small town with a largely African-American population and black elected leaders like Viola Murphy.
“I’m the mayor of this city, and my job is to keep everybody safe. This is not a safe situation,” she says.
Murphy is concerned that with the new limits, her city won’t be able to pay for new sidewalks along a busy street.
Driving through her town, Murphy points out pedestrians, with their backs to traffic, carrying heavy shopping bags on the shoulder of South Florissant Road. Murphy says that’s just too dangerous.
“It’s been cities like mine, working desperately to improve our city to become a better place for our citizens. They deserve as much as everybody else,” she says.
Cool Valley is one of a dozen predominantly black municipalities challenging the new law in court.
Normandy Mayor Patrick Green says the new law places harsher traffic fine restrictions on St. Louis County cities than on the state’s other municipalities. And that’s unfair.
“It’s convenient to attack the weakest in the herd. And the African-American community is weakest by tax base. We have not seen anything from any of these legislators that says, ‘How are we going to make these communities sustainable?’ ” Green says.
Many fear that towns led by African-Americans could dissolve.
St. Louis University law professor Brendan Roediger supports aspects of the new state law. But he’s concerned it lets more affluent and largely white cities in St. Louis County off the hook.
“I have said all along that there are municipalities in West County that are just as bad as municipalities in North County — that using percentage of revenue to measure courts is an absurd measurement. What it really tells you is that a municipality is poor,” Roediger says.
Yet these types of arguments hold little sway for state Rep. Tommie Pierson, who supported the restrictions.
He represents a handful of north St. Louis County cities in the Missouri House, and argues that his fellow African-American political figures are missing the bigger picture.
“I don’t represent the elected officials. I represent the citizens. And the citizens were put under heavy financial burden with fines of all kind,” Pierson says.
As the lawsuit over the traffic-fine revenue caps winds through the courts, lawmakers are considering expanding the law to restrict other kinds of municipal violations. And that could spur another battle — and more questions — about the future of towns led by African-Americans around St. Louis.