An audit of two St. Louis-area communities raises questions about their traffic fine processes and how they have run their municipal courts.
A report from the Missouri State Auditor reviewed both St. Ann and Foristell municipals on how they have operated their courts. In Foristell, located in both St. Charles and Warren counties, the auditor was questioning whether a $100 warrant fee for individuals who failed to appear in court or pay their fines was proper. In 2014, the city generated more than $65,000 in warrant fees. The town of 500 residents has since stopped the practice.
In St. Ann, located near Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, the auditor found the police department had collected $38,000 through what was described as a questionable bond processing fee. The city has since stopped accepting cash bonds and, therefore, is no longer charging the fees that were questioned.
The audits are part of a new law that the state legislature and governor approved in the aftermath of protests in Ferguson in 2014 regarding, among many issues, abuses in the municipal court system.
The new legislation limits how much cities can raise from court fines and fees. It further bans failure to appear charges (FTA) for missing court dates, and restricts jail sentences for most minor traffic cases. The new law also requires municipals to file financial reports to the state auditor, with a certification by municipal judges stating that the courts are in compliance with the law. As a penalty for failing to file reports or turn over excess revenue, cities would have to transfer pending court cases to their respective circuit court and lose out on sales tax revenues.
Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway, looking at Foristell records, found bookkeeping errors and “other practices that may impair impartiality or damage the court’s credibility with citizens.” Galloway cited that many tickets were processed by the court where plea agreements were signed by the defendants but not the prosecutor. “The court assesses two potentially improper fees related to a person’s failure to appear in court for a traffic violation that may not be authorized by state law,” Galloway noted.
Last November, several cities in St. Louis County sued the state to block the new law on grounds that it was unconstitutional in that it treated their city different from others in the stated.