Residents of a largely black St. Louis suburb have filed a federal lawsuit alleging their town relentlessly issues egregious code-violation tickets as a means of raising municipal funds, reports the Associated Press. The details of this are beyond bonkers.
Last year, the lawsuit said, 2,255 non-traffic tickets were doled out under the municipal code that authorizes citations for such things as having mismatched curtains, walking on the left side of a crosswalk, wearing saggy pants, having holes in window screens and having a barbecue in front of a house, according to the lawsuit.
Housemates Valerie Whitner and Vincent Blount, who brought the suit, have allegedly received “more than $2,800 in fines for such alleged infractions as having a downspout with chipping paint, not having a screen door behind their home and having weeds in their vegetable garden.”
The timing of this is interesting, to say the least: last September, a scathing report by Radley Balko of the Washington Post detailed how St. Louis municipalities use fines, including court fees, to put low-income residents in a debt spiral, essentially paying themselves on the backs of exploited residents. A Department of Justice report released in March of this year singled out Ferguson for this exact thing, condemning a “constitutionally deficient” municipal court that operates with the primary goal of “maximizing revenue.”
On the heels of that report, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed a court reform bill described as the “most sweeping” and “most significant” municipal court reform bill in state history. The goal of the bill was to put an end to what is described as “taxation by citation.” The reform bill “limits fines, bans failure to appear charges for missing a court date and bans jail as a sentence for most minor traffic offenses. It also restricts how much of their general operating revenue cities can raise from court fines and fees.”
Crucially, though, municipalities were given three to six years to achieve compliance on certain of the bill’s provisions. And it certainly seems like Pagedale, the suburb named in the federal lawsuit, is using that grace period to soak up as much cash as possible.
The number of non-traffic municipal fines issued in Pagedale, which has a roughly 93 percent black population, has soared by nearly 500 percent in the past five years, the lawsuit said, with revenue from non-traffic tickets making up nearly one-fifth of the city’s budget.
This has been a bad, bad year for the courts and law enforcement of the greater St. Louis area. In July the Justice Department released the results of yet another investigation, this time into St. Louis County Family Court, showing “that the family court fails to provide constitutionally required due process to children appearing for delinquency proceedings, and that the court’s administration of juvenile justice discriminates against Black children.”
The long and short of all this stuff is this: St. Louis County residents—particularly poor and black residents—have very little reason to trust their government.