- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The same day the Missouri Supreme Court heard a challenge to the penalty provision of a law that limits the money cities can get from traffic fines, a Missouri House committee considered enhancing the law.

The state’s high court on Wednesday heard a constitutional challenge to the law hinging on the argument that the removal of municipal court jurisdiction when cities do not comply with a cap on traffic revenues violates separation of powers and limits access to the courts. Lawmakers have identified that provision as a path to address municipal court abuses that residents say contributed to tensions in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, in Ferguson.

A proposal to further limit the amount cities could get has passed the state Senate and is now being considered in the House. The first step was the hearing before the House committee. Sen. Eric Schmitt, the measure’s sponsor, told House members the proposal addresses some of the problems revealed after Brown’s death last August and the protests that followed.

“For a minor traffic offense you shouldn’t be thrown in jail,” the Glendale Republican said at the committee hearing. “It is destroying the trust between the people and the people who swear to protect and serve those people.”

A Department of Justice report released last month strongly criticized Ferguson’s municipal court system, citing a profit-driven approach that frequently targets black residents. Some advocates of municipal court reform say the problem extends far beyond Ferguson.

The law at issue caps the percentage of revenue cities can collect from traffic violations at 30 percent and requires cities to file reports with the state and turn over any amount over that. Schmitt’s proposal would lower the cap.

House Speaker John Diehl, a Town and Country Republican, has said he wants to add more municipal court changes to the bill, such as preventing additional charges if defendants fail to attend a court hearing for minor traffic violations and mandating alternative payment plans.

But city officials have repeatedly said the so-called Macks Creek Law is too vague. The Missouri Municipal League, a group of local governments, challenged a 2013 change to the law that added a penalty in which the municipal court loses jurisdiction when a city is not in compliance.

“Access to the courts being limited by arbitrary third parties is an enormous constitutional problem,” said Jane Dueker, a St. Louis lawyer representing the Missouri Municipal League in the case. Dueker told the Missouri Supreme Court that the loss of jurisdiction would block cities’ access to the courts and cause confusion over how to deal with cases when a city is found to not be complying.

She said the law was unclear on who could conclude a city is not in compliance, opening the door for different judges to interpret it or statewide officials to do so.

Justice Laura Stith said the cases could simply be transferred to another court if the municipal court loses jurisdiction.

Dueker said the Supreme Court would have the authority to reassign or transfer cases when a municipal court loses authority under the law, but that the Legislature should not force justices to do so.

Ronald Holliger, senior counsel for Missouri’s attorney general, told the justices that the state constitution allows the Legislature to set up guidelines for the courts and that access to a particular court is not protected. He said Dueker and the Missouri Municipal League were being careful not to raise the issue of revenue because the courts operated as profit centers for many cities.

“These municipalities want to control a division of the circuit court,” Holliger said.

The attorney general’s office also contested whether the Municipal League had standing in the case.

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