Missouri lawmakers moved forward Wednesday with changes to municipal court practices, lower limits on revenues from traffic violations and restrictions on public access to police camera footage as part of a legislative response to unrest in Ferguson.
The Missouri House approved a measure 131-19 that would lower the amount local governments could collect from minor traffic violations. Ferguson protesters in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer voiced concerns about the focus on using police to raise revenues in some municipalities in the St. Louis area.
House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said the measure would address the practice of "taxation by citation."
"Some areas do have predatory practices when it comes to raising revenues," he said.
The measure would lower the percentage of general funds cities could get from fines and fees stemming from minor traffic violations from a current 30 percent cap to 20 percent, with a lower limit for cities in the St. Louis area.
The bill also more specifically defines those terms and adds enforcement mechanisms, including a potential vote on dissolving the city or removing jurisdiction and potential revenue for municipal courts of cities that violate the limits.
The bill would also require alternative payment options, limit detainment and eliminate charges for failing to appear in court for such violations. Court advocates have said some municipal courts do not allow community service or payment plans for poor residents and use the threat of imprisonment to extort money.
The measure would also require cities in St. Louis county to meet minimum standards including police services, a balanced budget and insurance. If they do not, the cities could be dissolved. Diehl, who introduced that proposal, said he wanted to eliminate bad actors that were not serving their residents.
Some Democratic lawmakers from the St. Louis area said they were concerned the changes would create challenges for smaller municipalities. St. Louis County has more than 90 municipalities.
The measure now returns to the Senate, where lawmakers will work out differences between the two versions. The Senate bill focused mainly on lowering the limit on traffic fine revenues and clarifying the requirements and enforcement of that cap. The Senate also had a lower cap for St. Louis area cities at 10 percent, while the House version sets that at 10 percent.
The House also moved forward on a measure that would restrict public access to video from police cameras - another response to the events in Ferguson. The measure would exempt police body or dashboard camera footage from the state's open-records laws.
Activists have rallied around efforts encouraging police departments across the country to use body cameras to record interactions with the public after the death of Brown. There was no video of that shooting.
But Missouri lawmakers are reluctant to require police cameras because the state constitution prohibits unfunded mandates. The measure also specifically prohibits the state from requiring law enforcement agencies to use body cameras.
Supporters say they want to balance privacy concerns of individuals with the public's right to know.
"This really protects the citizens of Missouri," said Rep. Shawn Rhoads, R-West Plains.
Opponents said setting such strict limitation on public access to video footage would hinder people seeking justice in alleged cases of police misconduct and harm efforts to build trust between law enforcement and the public.
"We should work on the privacy concerns, but to give a broad shield against video and audio recordings is wrong," said Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City.
The legislation would allow agencies to block access to footage and require court action to override that decision. Nothing in the measure would prohibit a law enforcement agency from releasing a video to the public without a court order.
Certain people would have a greater chance at accessing the videos. Anyone shown in a video, a relative, attorney or someone whose property is involved in an incident would be able to request access to the footage, and the police department would have to respond within 30 days or file with the court to continue to restrict access. Currently, the state's Sunshine Law treats open investigation reports the same way.
Anyone, including media outlets, would be able to appeal directly to the courts for access to the footage and the decision would be up to the judge.
The measure faces another vote in the House before going to the Senate. Gov. Jay Nixon declined to take a position on whether footage should be an open or closed record when asked by reporters about the issue earlier this year.