Critics: Certain St. Louis municipal courts are 'heavy-handed,' - KMOV.com

Critics: Certain St. Louis municipal courts are 'heavy-handed,' 'greedy,' and 'insensitive'

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By Adam McDonald By Adam McDonald

(KMOV.com) -- Critics blast some Saint Louis County municipal courts as being heavy-handed, greedy and insensitive. Major reform is closer than ever, but one local mayor is fighting back claiming that if that happens it could lead to anarchy.

Critics say police speed guns are the pick pockets of local government raising millions of dollars off the motorists driving through their small towns.

Missouri State Senator Eric Schmitt says 14 municipalities in St. Louis County, roughly 1 out of 6, collect more money from traffic tickets and fines, than anything else.

“You can't have government by speed trap and that's what we have in this county” said Schmitt.

“Six years ago St. Ann wrote about 2,000 tickets...now they write about 9,000 tickets...they used to have 500,000 in revenue, now it is $3.5 million.”

Schmitt has introduced a bill that would make it illegal for any municipality to have more than 20% of their revenue come from traffic tickets and fines in 2016, and cuts it to 10% in 2017. The bill could have a dramatic impact on places like St. Ann and Pine Lawn, which are among the 21 north St. Louis County municipalities that collect more than 20% of their revenue from traffic tickets and fines.

Read here: Local municipal courts leave many in cycle of debt; fuel distrust of justice system

“People ought to be offended that police departments are being used this way by their mayors and city managers who view citizens of those communities and surrounding communities as ATMs for their governments” said Schmitt.

If the bill becomes law, they would have to give the state back all money above the limit or risk losing additional tax money. The County would also be able to set an election calling for disincorporation, in other words giving residents the right to give their local government the death penalty.

Edmunson mayor John Gwaltney says tickets help pay for the police department, and he insists that if officers are forced to back off, it could eventually lead to anarchy.

“What's next don't write tickets or arrest someone for breaking into a home? What's next, just go on down the line. Pretty soon you have anarchy” said Gwaltney.

Edmunson, a city of about 800 residents, gets roughly a third of it's revenue through municipal court. 

Last year, the mayor was so concerned about a plunge in tickets that he wrote police this memo and included in envelopes containing their paychecks. The mayor's memo said that he'd noticed a "marked downturn in traffic and other tickets," reminded them that "the tickets you write do add to the revenue on which the Police Department is established and will directly affect pay adjustments at budget time."

Gwaltney told News 4 he “was trying to motivate them to do their job and do it right … tickets are the only way.”

But if Schmitt's bill becomes law, that culture will have to change.

“As opposed to having the guts to go to voters and say do you want X,Y and Z, they just put more cops in speed traps and that's a problem” said Schmitt.

Under Senator Schmitt's bill, some small rural towns will be able to collect up to 20-percent of their revenue through muni courts.

Today, the Missouri State Senate unanimously passed Schmitt's bill. It now moves to the house.

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