- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri’s top House Republican called Wednesday for a number of changes to how traffic violations are handled in the state’s courts - proposals prompted by concerns raised after the fatal police shooting in Ferguson last August.

House Speaker John Diehl said the House plans to bulk up a Senate bill that would limit most cities from funding more than 20 percent of their budgets from fines and fees. That’s aimed at blocking municipalities from excessively fining residents to fill their coffers, a complaint raised by protesters after black 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white officer.

A Department of Justice report found that Ferguson operated a profit-driven system that heightened tensions among black residents for years. The report said the city was counting on revenues from fines and fees to generate nearly one-quarter of its total budget for the 2015 fiscal year.

Another proposal would require cities and towns to submit annual reports detailing how much money they keep in fines to the state auditor, in an effort to ensure oversight of new rules.

If cities and towns fail to turn over excess money from fines to be used at local schools, voters would be asked whether to dissolve the municipality.

Planned changes to the Senate bill include requiring courts to consider a defendant’s ability to pay sentencing fines. Diehl said some lawmakers want to require courts to offer alternative payment options, such as online payments or community service.

Those proposals have support from some of the most outspoken Senate Democrats calling for change.

“My constituents want to seek a balance between safety and not being overburdened,” said Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a University City resident who protested in Ferguson after Brown’s death.

The bill is pending in a House committee, where Diehl said he expects it will receive approval within days.

The legislation is one of a number of bills proposed this year in response to Brown’s death, including requiring police to wear body cameras.

The Senate on Tuesday debated legislation that would prevent additional charges if defendants fail to attend a court hearing for minor traffic violations, another provision Diehl outlined as a priority.

That bill stalled in the Senate after Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph raised questions about how judges would require offenders to come to court without penalties for skipping hearings.

Revising laws on local courts, which has been proposed by Republicans in previous sessions, likely have the best chance of passing the GOP-controlled Legislature.

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Traffic fines bill is SB 5.

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Online:

Senate: https://www.senate.mo.gov

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Follow Summer Ballentine at: https://www.twitter.com/esballentine

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