It’s rare to see a bill receive any type of bipartisan support in Jefferson City, but that is what happened earlier this month with the passage of Senate Bill 5. This is good news for all citizens of this state, especially those in St. Louis County who have been brutally ripped off for years by greedy municipalities trying to meet their bottom lines. Senate Bill 5 was signed by Governor Nixon last week, and while the bill has a lengthy list of reforms, the key points you should know include:
- The amount of traffic-related revenue collected by local governments outside of St. Louis County cannot exceed 20% of the town’s general operating revenue
- The amount of traffic-related revenue collected by local governments inside St. Louis County cannot exceed 12.5% of the town’s general operating revenue
- Fines and court costs for minor traffic offenses cannot exceed $300 per offense
- NOBODY can be sentenced to jail simply because they cannot afford to pay a fine
- Courts cannot charge additional “Failure to Appear” fines to those who do not appear in court on their traffic charges
Score another victory for supporters of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. This year’s term of the U.S. Supreme Court has been kind to supporters of the Fourth Amendment. The Court today held in a 6-3 decision that police may not extend a traffic stop in order to wait for drug-sniffing dogs when there is no probable cause to search the vehicle.
The Court’s majority opinion held “that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable searches.” As such, once a driver is pulled over for a traffic violation, and the matter is resolved either through the issuing of a citation or otherwise, the traffic stop must cease unless the officer has “probable cause” to believe that a canine search is warranted. As the court says, an officer’s authority to hold a driver and confront him “ends when the tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been – completed.”
Of course, “probable cause” can always be created by officers after-the-fact. And the Court said that officers are still allowed to use drug-sniffing dogs during the course of a routine traffic stop. This ruling simply states that they cannot extend the time of a traffic stop merely to call for a dog (assuming no probable cause exists). While that may sound complicated and convoluted, it is in the end another roadblock deterring police officers from violating your Fourth Amendment rights, and another weapon for attorneys to use in situations such as the one encountered by Dennys Rodriguez, the driver in this case.
This is pretty interesting case, and you can read the Court’s full opinion here.
Another major reform to St. Louis County’s many municipal courts was announced last night by the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee. No longer will certain fines like speeding, driving without insurance, red light violations, etc. vary by hundreds of dollars depending on where the ticket is issued. Instead, it was announced last night that 80 of our 82 municipal courts have agreed to issue uniform fine and court costs amounts for most ordinance violations.
Under this new standard, fines are $70.50 plus court costs for most routine moving violations (speeding, lane violations, illegal u-turns, etc.), and $50.50 for non-moving violations. Speeding fines range from $6 to $8 per mph over the limit. The municipal courts also agreed to standardized court costs of $24.50. This will make things much more clear for defendants as well as for their attorneys who at least have a baseline from which they can counsel their clients.
Two towns – Brentwood and Wellston – are not yet on board but are expected to join after changes to their municipal judges are finalized. These changes do not have to go into effect until this summer, and towns are free to levy higher fines for certain violations such as school zone violations. But this is yet another positive step towards fixing our embarrassingly corrupt municipal court system.
After the Department of Justice’s Report on Ferguson was released earlier this month, news outlets worldwide broke down the scathing report and often added their own stories of just how terrible this court has treated defendants. We all know that these problems are by no means limited to Ferguson. Go five miles in any direction from Ferguson and you can see the same unconstitutional practices happening on a daily basis. This story on the Huffington Post this morning illustrates some troubling but all-too-common instances of injustice in “cities” like Pasadena Hills, Pine Lawn, and Jennings. It’s a bit of a long read but well worth it. Check it out.
By now you’ve probably read, or at least have heard of some of the findings, of the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report that was released last week. It was all kinds of terrible, and exposed many things that attorneys who represent clients in Ferguson and surrounding courts have known about for years. After the report was issued, every attorney that I talked to had many ideas of what some of the fallout would be, but just about everyone agreed that huge changes would come as a result of such an embarrassing report made public for the world to see.
The first of what are likely to be dozens of major changes were announced last night. First, the Missouri Supreme Court issued an order transferring all Ferguson Municipal Court cases to the St. Louis County Circuit Court. These cases have all been assigned to Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Roy Richter, because, in another interesting move, Ron Brockmeyer, the longtime Ferguson judge, resigned yesterday.
Brockmeyer is also the judge and prosecutor in a few other North County Municipalities. Late last night, it was reported that he has also resigned from his position as the prosecutor for the neighboring town of Dellwood. Coinciding with this announcement, the mayor of Dellwood announced that he has ordered his municipal court to dismiss every single traffic-related case pending since before April 11, 2012.
We’re still in the first week since the release of the DOJ Report, so expect many more changes to occur in the coming days and weeks. Check back for updates.
Since red-light cameras were implemented in the Missouri area 10 years ago, nearly 1 million drivers have received red-light camera tickets in nearly 30 municipalities statewide. A settlement reached late last year in St. Louis County grants drivers who paid fines prior to November 21, 2014 a 20% refund on the fines that they have paid. Nearly every city’s fine that we’ve seen have been for an even $100, so if you’ve paid one of these annoying tickets, you have most likely received a postcard in the mail and are entitled to at least $20.
If you haven’t received your postcard (likely because you’ve moved since you received and/or paid your fine), you can find more information on how to receive your refund here. Keep in mind, if you’d like to get some of your money back, you must claim your refund NO LATER THAN February 28, 2015. Also, since red light cameras are still technically legal in Missouri pending a ruling by our state’s Supreme Court, some aggrieved drivers may choose not to receive their refund and keep their ability to sue down the road. You can find our more information on that option here.
Check back later this year for a breakdown of the final red-light camera ruling by the Missouri Supreme Court.
Late last month, the Missouri Supreme Court issued an order that said that when a defendant in a municipal court does not have the money to pay his/her fines, the court must either a.) give the person more time to pay; or, b.) allow the person to set up a payment plan that works with the person’s financial situation.
This long-overdue policy change is a direct result of local advocacy groups who demanded changes to municipal court policies in the wake of the Ferguson unrest. Most courts have had payment plan options in place long before the Ferguson unrest, but these payment plans were of a set monthly amount dictated by the court, and were not dependent on each individual defendant’s own income situation. And this new rule goes on to say that when a defendant misses an installment payment, he will be ordered to appear in court to explain his/her missed payment, unlike the old method in which a missed installment payment resulted in an immediate warrant.
This change in the way courts in our city operate has been needed for some time, and these changes will go into effect on July 1 of this year. While most courts will likely start implementing these changes in advance of July 1, it would be wise to contact us to determine if the court in which you are facing charges has already began these more flexible policies.
It’s been another great year here in Webster Groves. Thanks to all of our clients, friends and family for a successful 2014. Please be careful if you’re out celebrating this evening ringing in 2015.
Also, be alert for the city of St. Louis’ “No Refusal Zone” if you’re out in the city tonight, as explained in this piece on St. Louis Public Radio (and featuring colleague and neighbor John Schleiffarth)
See you in 2015!
13 local beacons of justice have been named in a lawsuit filed by Attorney General Chris Koster this morning alleging, among other things, failure to provide required annual financial reports, deriving too much of their revenue from municipal court fines, and several other offenses that those in the St. Louis legal community have known for years. The State also alleges that due to these violations, these municipal courts have lacked jurisdiction over traffic violations occurring in their towns since as far back as March 1 of this year.
The list of cities named as defendants includes: Bellerieve Acres, Beverly Hills, Breckenridge Hills, Crystal Lake Park, Hillsdale, Mackenzie, Moline Acres, Normandy, Pagedale, Pasadena Park, Uplands Park, Velda Village Hills, and Vinita Terrace.
The fact that other North County municipalities such as St. Ann, Charlack, Edmundson and about a dozen other municipalities survived being named in this suit is most surprising of all. Koster also alleges that these municipal courts have violated what is known as the “Mack’s Creek Law”, which prevents municipalities in this state from deriving more than 35% of their operating revenues from traffic fines for violations occurring on state or federal highways. By law, any excess revenue collected over that 35% cap must be handed over to the Department of Revenue (which then puts it back into local schools).
What will result from this suit will be extremely interesting, and it will be fascinating to watch this unfold as the calendar turns to 2015. Will these towns simply dissolve (like the town for which the ‘Mack’s Creek Law’ was named)? Will they merge? Will more towns be added to later versions of this suit? What about guilty pleas entered in these courts during the second half of this year? At a very minimum, I think we can expect much more fairness and transparency from these courts in 2015 and beyond.
You can read the lawsuit in full here.
While this is in no way law-related, I encourage all of you to take some time and check out this incredible organization that my brother Alex and his talented group of friends have started. They have lost a couple of close friends to suicide while they were students at Mizzou. Both deaths came as a total surprise to everyone, as these young adults were the lives of the party and showed no signs of being suicidal.
Rather than allow their friends to become mere statistics, my brother and his friends have decided to start a group to get the uncomfortable topic of suicide out into the open and begin the discussion that can save lives. They have decided to make a documentary, and this week they started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money. Hoping to maybe raise $10,000 over a few months, this campaign has already raised $20,000 in 48 hours.
Please check out the powerful video on this site, consider making a donation, and please pass this on to your friends and family. They also have a website for their documentary, which is also worth checking out. No donation is too small.