- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. (AP) - Nearly all of the 82 municipal courts in St. Louis County have agreed to a uniform standard for fines and court costs, part of an effort to address concerns that some courts in the region prey on the poor and minorities.

The agreement was announced Thursday by Frank Vatterott, chairman of the St. Louis County Municipal Courts Improvement Committee. The panel formed last year in the wake of unrest in Ferguson that came after Darren Wilson, a white police officer, killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old. A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute Wilson, who resigned a few months after the August shooting.

The case drew attention to racial concerns throughout the St. Louis area, including municipalities that rely on fines and bench warrants for revenue.

Vatterott, a municipal judge in Overland, said 80 of the 82 municipal courts in St. Louis County have adopted the uniform standard, meaning that traffic fines will be the same for routine offenses throughout the county. Most of the courts reduced fines to meet the new standard. Those already assessing lower fines will continue to charge the lower amount, Vatterott said.

The two courts that haven’t signed on - Brentwood and Wellston - are going through changes in judges and will likely agree once their transitions are complete, he said.

“It’s only one item out of many that has to be changed, so it’s not a panacea,” Vatterott said, referring to the courts’ decision to adopt the standard. “But it’s a start.”

St. Louis County communities previously set their own fines, and they varied widely. The fine for speeding 10 mph over the limit was $44.50 in Pasadena Park. The same offense in nearby Breckenridge Hills brought a fine of $150. In fact, every offense, even illegal parking, carried a fine of at least $100 in Breckenridge Hills, a mixed-race town of 4,700 residents near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Under the uniform standard, fines are $70.50 plus court costs for most routine moving violations, and $50.50 for non-moving violations. Speeding fines range from $6 to $8 per mph over the limit. The municipal courts also agreed to standardized court costs of $24.50.

Some towns adopted the new standard effective April 1. Others will wait until May or June, Vatterott said.

Some exceptions are allowed, he said. Individual courts may assess higher fines in school zones where speeding is common, for example.

Dave Leipholtz, who studied the region’s municipal courts for the nonprofit group Better Together, said uniform fines are a positive step but more needs to be done to improve the system.

“You have tickets now that in some places can be $200 for a basic speeding ticket,” Leipholtz said. “People look at that and say, ‘There’s no way I can pay that.’ It kind of weaves down a road of non-compliance that isn’t purposeful.”

The St. Louis area’s municipal courts have been under close scrutiny. A Department of Justice report issued last month said Ferguson’s court system generates revenue for the city largely on the backs of poor and minority residents.

Ferguson leaders made changes soon after the unrest began last summer, capping fine income at 15 percent of the city’s total revenue and eliminating “failure to appear” offenses. But the DOJ report cited the need for more improvement.

Ferguson is hardly alone. St. Louis County is dotted with small municipalities that derive high percentages of their revenue from court fines and costs. That prompted officials to form the improvement committee, which is made up of municipal judges, lawyers and court administrators.

Missouri lawmakers are considering a bill that would cap the amount of revenue that municipalities can keep from traffic fines. The exact limit hasn’t been determined, but the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Schmitt, a Republican from the St. Louis County town of Glendale, wants it capped at 10 percent of a city’s general operating revenue.

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