Missouri attorney general to appeal court reform ruling


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said Tuesday he will appeal a court ruling that struck down key parts of a state law limiting the ability of cities to profit from traffic tickets and court fines.

Koster’s announcement came one day after Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled that the law unconstitutionally targeted St. Louis-area municipalities with revenue caps lower than other Missouri cities.

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

Missouri lawmakers last year overwhelmingly supported the bill meant to address concerns raised after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson. That shooting led to scrutiny of municipal courts in Ferguson and nearby towns, where high percentages of revenue were derived from fines and court costs paid disproportionally by blacks and low-income residents.

Ferguson was not among the 12 St. Louis County towns that filed suit to overturn the measure. Ferguson leaders earlier this month signed off on an agreement allowing U.S. Department of Justice oversight of the city’s police and court system.

Beetem also struck down special requirements included in the law for St. Louis-area police departments, including written use-of-force policies and procedures for reporting police stops. He found that some parts of the law, including a provision requiring police departments in St. Louis County to become accredited within six years, were unconstitutional mandates because the state did not provide funding for them.

The law lowered the percentage of revenue most cities can collect from traffic fines and fees from 30 percent to 20 percent — except for cities in St. Louis County, which faced a 12.5 percent cap.

A message seeking comment Tuesday from Sam Alton, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, was not immediately returned. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Monday that municipalities involved in the suit were “elated” by Beetem’s ruling.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said the court reform legislation took “meaningful and much-needed steps to end the unacceptable abuses of the municipal court system in the St. Louis region.” He said he will work with lawmakers to make any changes necessary to implement the law.

The Senate earlier this year voted to add municipal ordinance fines to cities’ revenue cap, and the legislation is awaiting a committee vote in the House.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Republican from St. Louis County who proposed the law, said Monday that the court ruling was emblematic of why people don’t trust their government.

“For years, citizens have been abused by local bureaucrats who have treated them like ATMs to fund their bloated budgets, salaries and perks,” he said in a statement. “These same bureaucrats used the money they collected to hire an out-of-state attorney and lobbyists to fight the most significant municipal court reform ever enacted in Missouri.”

The shooting of Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, in August 2014 by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson led to sometimes-violent protests and the Justice Department investigation.

A grand jury and the Justice Department declined to prosecute Wilson, who resigned in November 2014.