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Lawmakers, courts focus on possible municipal court changes

January 23, 2015 at 5:00 a.m. | Updated January 23, 2015 at 5:00 a.m.

After teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer last August, some of the protests and anger were aimed at Missouri's municipal courts and how some people believe they prey on poor people.

People in the St. Louis metropolitan area particularly have been vocal about concerns poor people are hurt disproportionally when fines are levied for traffic offenses or driving with expired license plates.

"Municipal divisions play an important role in enforcing local laws, and they handle more than two-thirds of all cases filed in our state courts," Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell told the General Assembly Thursday.

During her State of the Judiciary speech, Russell added: "Courts must give consideration to those unable to pay any fine that is imposed.

"To that end, the Supreme Court recently adopted a new rule - that if people demonstrate they are unable to pay a fine, municipal judges will be required to give them more time to pay it."

But lawmakers also are looking at other possible municipal court changes.

"Those municipal courts are really an entity of local government," state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia and an attorney, said. "Because the Supreme Court rules apply to all courts, the court's rules apply to those courts.

"But, as far as the hiring and the operation, that really is a function of the local, municipal government."

Another lawyer, state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, added: "I think there are problem municipalities in our state, and it would be appropriate for the Legislature (to) change some laws and for the Supreme Court to change some rules to ensure that municipal courts are not used as revenue generators - but, instead, as places where everyone comes in equal before the eyes of the law."

The Senate on Wednesday took testimony on a bill that would limit municipal court fines, especially on traffic offenses, to only 10 percent of total revenues.

"I'm concerned that, if we're cutting out revenue for those (courts) in the St. Louis area, we could be cutting out revenue for the smaller courts" in outstate Missouri, Rep. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, told the News Tribune.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, said the proposal senators discussed Wednesday "is a one-size-fits-all across this state" idea, and that "best way to serve our mutual constituents" is for both lawmakers and judges to work together.

State Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, agreed "the best solution will be found via cooperation between the legislative and judicial branches."

Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis also is an attorney, and cautioned: "If we're not very careful here, we could make a bad problem worse.

"I'm not going to advocate for funding government by citation and by tickets, but we have a very real danger of turning poor communities into much poorer communities."


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