Apparently, St. Louis County is not alone in its controversial municipal court practices. A recent state audit of municipal courts has found problems in counties such as Jasper, Clay and Lincoln.
The recent audits from December and January by Missouri’s state auditor has lent credence to arguments that questionable court practices in a select few St. Louis County municipals could be a state-wide problem. The audits are part of 10 state-wide audits to be conducted.
The audits previously were tailored towards accounting practices but have now been expanded to consider practices that could damage the court’s credibility or treat people unfairly. Statistical data on traffic tickets, warrants and penalties are now collected and evaluated.
Based on the new focus of court audits, five of four municipal courts that have been audited so far received “fair” to “poor” ratings on a four point scale that included “good” and “excellent.”
Problems in these out-state cities involved court clerks with broad and unchecked authority to issue warrants, collect money, and amend charges without much supervision; illegal fees and tickets voided without a prosecutor or judges signature; missing money; lax bookkeeping; and late reports with errors on the court caseloads.
In Joplin, a city of 6,195, received a “poor” grade. The audit said that poor record keeping upped the risk that defendants could get fined even though they spent time in jail or completed community service instead of paying a fine. Restitution and bail payments were not timely processed and 120 people were found to have access to the court’s computer but should not have had it. Access to the information risked that case data could be altered or cases dismissed.
In Carl Junction, population of just under 7,500 in Jasper County,
weaknesses in accounting procedures and controls were noted, along with
$65,373 in missing money.
Their court clerk has since been charged with felony stealing but once had the power to dismiss cases and amend traffic tickets to non-moving
violations. The audit further noted that reports were not filed with the
state; tickets went missing and receipts not filed timely; and one bail
payment went 237 days before it was deposited.
The cities of Foley and Winfield in Lincoln County, along with Mosby in Clay County received a “fair” rating. The City of St. Ann in St. Louis County was judged as “good.”
Critics of recent municipal reform legislation have complained about its unfair and unequal application for St. Louis County compared to other
counties. Audit statistics showing Foley generating 85 percent of its
revenue from the its court system proves their point that St. Louis County should not be the only county singled out for court reform.
The new law places a cap on the amount of money that can be raised from traffic cases, 12.5 percent for St. Louis County municipals and 20 percent for municipals in other counties.