St. Louis Record

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Missouri Supreme Court strikes down parts of law governing how much city courts can collect in fees

By Sam Knef | Jun 2, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Supreme Court has struck down portions of a 2015 state law governing how much money in fines and fees municipal courts can collect.

The law, known as SB 5, was enacted following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

"The State failed to offer any evidence in the trial court of a substantial justification for the special laws in Senate Bill 5 ... Consequently, the challenged provisions of SB 5 violate the Missouri Constitution’s special law prohibition," the ruling states.

The bill signed by former Gov. Jay Nixon in 2015 had reduced the amount of money municipalities could collect from 30 percent to 20 percent, and even less in St. Louis County at 12.5 percent, according to news reports. 

"Because the State failed to present any evidence of substantial justification for enacting either section 67.287 in its entirety, or section 479.359 insofar as it creates a separate cap on counties with a charter form of government and with more than 950,000 inhabitants, they are special laws," the ruling states. "The statutes target municipalities in one political subdivision: St. Louis County. The trial court’s judgment permanently enjoining the State from enforcing these provisions is, therefore, affirmed."

After Brown's shooting by a Ferguson police officer and the riots that ensued, a Department of Justice investigation found that the city's municipal court acted as an "abusive fundraising tool," which disproportionately impacted the poor and people of color.

The provision that enacted the 12.5-percent revenue cap in St. Louis County was severed from the law, resulting in a statewide 20-percent cap, the ruling states.

In a 5-1 decision handed down May 16, the court held that special laws like SB 5 can survive a challenge in the future as long as substantial justification is presented at the trial court. In SB 5, the state failed in its burden, according to the ruling authored by Judge Mary Russell.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Zel Fischer wrote that there was "no justification for the decision to only apply prospectively."

"[A]n unconstitutional statute is no law and confers no rights," Fischer wrote, citing a decision in Trout v. State. "This is true from the date of its enactment, and not merely from the date of the decision so branding it." 

Judge Philip M. Hess, who participated in the decision by special assignment, concurred except in dissent of the majority's holding that the law contains special laws in violation of the state Constitution.

"The principal opinion should have reversed the trial court’s determination that SB 5 contains unconstitutional special laws," Hess wrote.

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