St. Louis municipal court judges will now take a defendant’s ability to pay into account when issuing fines for traffic violations or other minor offenses.
A new administrative order went into effect Thursday requiring judges to determine a defendant’s ability to pay when issuing a fine. Judges can then use their discretion to find a fair way for the defendant to meet their obligation.
Municipal court reform has become a major issue in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in August. One week after Brown’s death, the St. Louis public defender group Arch City Defenders issued a report accusing several St. Louis County courts of illegal practices with regards to fines.
In October, state Auditor Tom Schweich announced that he was auditing 10 municipal courts in the county to see if they were complying with a state law that limits the amount of revenue generated from fines a municipality can keep. Last week, Arch City Defenders, lawyers from a private firm and lawyers with St. Louis University Law School filed suit against seven St. Louis municipalities for allegedly charging illegal fees.
And earlier Thursday, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster announced that he was suing 13 St. Louis County municipalities for violating a state law that limits the amount of revenue a municipality can retain from fines to 30 percent.
According to Presiding Municipal Court Judge Gordon Schweitzer, the rule codifies a habit judges have already had in place for several years.
“This isn’t a forgiveness program of fines and court costs. It’s simply a means by which we can push off paying the fines and court costs to try and accommodate to some extent a person’s financial constraints,” Schweitzer explained, adding that he believes most people want to meet their obligations.
Schweitzer said that fines in the city’s municipal court typically range between $25 and $500, with court costs averaging $50. Those who cannot pay immediately could be given a payment plan, a month’s grace or the option to pay through community service. The amount of the fine could also be reduced.
When St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced the rule, he said that it was one of a number of measures the city has put in place “over the past four months to make our city more fair and more just,” citing efforts to organize a civilian review board and recruit more minorities to law enforcement as others.
“It’s about fairness,” Slay said. “Some people can just plain afford more than others can. And certainly we do not want minor traffic offense or minor other violations, maybe building code violations, to be a situation where it’s just way too burdensome for them.”
Slay also said he hopes that the new rule encourages more people to participate in the city’s warrant amnesty program. More than 70,000 people have outstanding warrants from the city, many for unpaid fines, but so far less than 4,000 have taken advantage of the opportunity to clear their warrants and request a new court date.
“We hope that this will help as well these people who have these outstanding warrants and are afraid to come in because they don’t have the ability to pay,” Slay said.
St. Louis County also has a warrant forgiveness program underway. Both the city and the county’s program end Dec. 31.