- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Mayors of several small St. Louis County cities defended their enforcement of traffic laws Wednesday to state senators who are considering whether to impose stricter limits on how much money cities can get from traffic fines.

The legislation is part of the response to the fatal police shooting last year of 18-year-old Michael Brown, which touched off months of occasionally violent protests in his hometown of Ferguson. Although Brown was walking when initially confronted by police officer Darren Wilson, many residents in the largely black community have said they often felt harassed by the city’s predominantly white police force.

Supporters of the legislation limiting city traffic fine revenues said it could help ease tensions between police and residents.

But several mayors who opposed the bill during a hearing by the Senate Jobs, Economic Development and Local Government Committee said they are enforcing traffic laws to keep their residents safe. The mayors said their cities have limited sources of revenue.

“The small municipalities and the small municipal courts did not create the problem in Ferguson,” said Greendale Mayor Monica Huddleston. “The Ferguson situation is all of our situation: the lack of education equity, the lack of living wage jobs, the three centuries in this country of racism and classism.”

The bill lowers a cap on how much cities, towns and counties can collect from traffic-related fines and court costs as a portion of their general revenue from 30 percent to 10 percent.

Legal defense advocates have said the fines disproportionately punish poor residents who may not be able to afford a small ticket for something like expired vehicle tags. If the fines go unpaid, those tickets can lead to an arrest warrant, additional fines and even jail time.

Former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch said cities may claim the goal is safety but that many municipalities blatantly depend on revenue from ticketing and set quotas for police departments.

“Make no mistake: Excessive ticketing has ruined the relationship between the police and the people we are supposed to serve and protect,” Fitch said.

Bill sponsor Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, said cities should not be relying on tickets for revenue and would have to make tough choices to ask voters to fund services in other ways.

Municipal courts in St. Louis and St. Louis County collected nearly half of the $132 million in fines and fees paid statewide, according to an October study by the nonprofit group Better Together. More than $45 million - or 34 percent - of that amount came from the county’s municipal courts, even though their combined population represents just 11 percent of the statewide total.

Missouri’s limits on city traffic fine revenues have rarely been enforced. The first violation was found in 2010 after an audit of Randolph, in Clay County, said Spence Jackson, a spokesman for the state auditor’s office.

The Department of Revenue collects money reported by cities, towns, villages and counties beyond the cap and distributes it to schools. Since 2011, the department has received $256,000. The bulk of that has been collected in the current fiscal year, with $236,716 received so far, according to the department.

The auditor’s office plans to conduct 10 municipal court audits this year and Attorney General Chris Koster has sued 13 St. Louis County municipalities for failing to properly report traffic fine data.

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