- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The Missouri Legislature voted Thursday to restrict fines from traffic tickets and ordinance violations, reacting to criticism raised after the 2014 protests in Ferguson that some cities abuse those citations to fund their governments.

The cap on traffic ticket fines would be lowered from $300 to $225. The bill would also limit fines for ordinance violations, such as poorly maintained property, to $200 for the first violation. The ceiling would increase to $450 for the fourth offense.

The bill would add ordinance fines to the cap on how much revenue cities can draw from court costs. That cap is one of the only measures lawmakers passed last year in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson.

The 2014 incident and the protests that followed brought national attention to law enforcement tactics in St. Louis County. Critics pointed to excessive citations as evidence of police harassment in predominantly black communities.

A St. Louis County grand jury declined to charge the officer and the U.S. Department of Justice cleared him of wrongdoing but issued a scathing report that found Ferguson’s municipal court system was profit-driven and frequently targeted blacks.

“The crux of the matter is, how are municipalities going to be run?” said Rep. Robert Cornejo, the St. Peters Republican who handled the bill in the House.

The Senate on Tuesday approved the lower caps Tuesday on a 30-0 vote, but it drew opposition from some St. Louis-area lawmakers before passing the House 98-46 and advancing to the governor.

Rep. Joe Adams, a Democrat from University City, said the measure perpetuates unequal treatment for St. Louis County municipalities that began under the 2015 law. The measure lowered the percentage of revenue most cities can collect from traffic fines and fees from 30 percent to 20 percent - except for cities in St. Louis County, which faced a 12.5 percent cap.

A judge in March ruled that singling out St. Louis County for different limits was unconstitutional.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster is appealing that ruling, and Cornejo said lawmakers didn’t change the limits because they’re confident the state supreme court will uphold them.

Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis, a Democrat from Ferguson who voted against the bill, said it didn’t do enough to address the real problems plaguing the St. Louis-area justice system, such as people serving as judges in some municipalities while simultaneously working as prosecutors in others.

Cornejo agreed that was a problem, but the separation of powers made it difficult for lawmakers to tackle that problem. He said it is up to the Missouri Supreme Court to issue conflict of interest policies for the judicial branch.

“But we know that they’re not going to do that,” Curtis said. “They’ve already shown that they’re willing to protect members of the bar at all costs.”

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