Pagedale Municipal Fines

Class Action Lawsuit Challenges Policing for Profit in St. Louis Co. Municipal Court System

What would it be like if your homeowners’ or condo association had a police force? If, instead of just annoying you by nitpicking how your property’s paint looks or whether your barbequing with friends bothers the neighborhood busybodies, the association could ticket, fine, and even arrest you? And what would it be like if the association had an incentive to ticket you as much and as often as possible because it needed as much money as it could get its hands on?

This scenario is, unfortunately, a reality for the residents of Pagedale, Missouri.

Pagedale lies just outside of St. Louis. To supplement the tax revenue it receives from its impoverished residents, Pagedale relies heavily on money from tickets and fines. Missouri limits how much revenue a municipality may derive from traffic tickets, however, so Pagedale aggressively tickets its residents for harmless conditions and activities around their homes.

According to the city code, Pagedale residents can be ticketed and fined for:

      • Having mismatched curtains;
      • Walking on the left-hand side of a crosswalk;
      • Wearing pants below one’s waist;
      • Having holes in window screens, and;
      • Having a barbeque in front of a house.

The recipients of these tickets are then thrown into Pagedale’s municipal court system, which, in 2013, heard over 5,000 cases, or an average of over 200 cases per twice-monthly session.

Pagedale specifically budgets to receive a large percentage of its revenue from fines and fees. By targeting a certain amount of revenue from fines and fees from its residents, Pagedale turns policing on its head. Rather than react to conditions to ensure that the public is protected and wrongdoers punished, Pagedale sets a revenue goal and then uses its code enforcement powers to achieve it.

Pagedale’s dependence on fines and fees to raise revenue is not just oppressive and bad policy; it violates the Due Process and Excessive Fines Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The Institute for Justice (IJ), the nation’s leading legal opponent of policing for profit, has teamed up with Pagedale residents to bring a class-action suit against Pagedale to end the city’s use of its code enforcement mechanisms as a means to raise money.

Pagedale Municipal Fines

Date Filed

November 4, 2015

Original Court

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri

Current Court

United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri

Case Status

Open

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Mildred Bryant received a ticket for having

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Class Action Lawsuit Challenges Policing for Profit in St. Louis County Town

Pagedale, Mo., Residents Team Up with Institute for Justice to Shut Down City’s Unconstitutional Ticketing Regime

Pagedale covers 1.19 square miles in St. Louis County.[1] As of 2010, there were approximately 3,000 people living in the city, 93% of whom are African American, as are its mayor and the entire city council.[2] About a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line.[3] Despite the poverty of its residents, since 2010, Pagedale has increased the number of non-traffic tickets it has levied against its residents by 495 percent.[4]

This increase came after the Missouri Legislature tightened a law designed to wean municipalities off of overreliance on revenue from traffic tickets. In 2009, Missouri amended a law called the Macks Creek Law to enforce limits on the amount of money municipalities may raise from traffic tickets.[5] The legislature capped the amount of revenue a municipality may have in its general fund that comes from traffic tickets at 30 percent. In 2015, Missouri dropped the percentage from 30 percent to 12.5 percent. However, the Macks Creek Law applies only to traffic tickets. Other municipal tickets are exempt[6] and shortly after the revenue percentage in the Macks Creek Law dropped to 30 percent, the amount of non-traffic tickets issued by Missouri cities exploded.[7]

This explosion was particularly significant in St. Louis County, which surrounds the city of St. Louis. St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, ranging in size from 12 to 50,000 people.[8] The large number of cities lying shoulder-to-shoulder in an urban area means that many of these cities are governed by entities having jurisdiction over slivers of territory the size of a neighborhood or housing development.

Pagedale is one of these cities. The basis for the vast increase in tickets is the voluminous Pagedale municipal Code of Ordinances. Among many other restrictions,

  • Pagedale residents are prohibited from having a basketball hoop or wading pool in front of their house.[9]
  • They may not have a hedge above three feet high.[10]
  • They cannot have a dish antenna on the front of their house.[11]
  • Pedestrians cannot walk on the roadway if there is a sidewalk, and if there is not a sidewalk, they must walk on the left side of the roadway.[12]
  • They must walk on the right side of crosswalks.[13]
  • Pagedale residents may not have dead vegetation on their property.[14]
  • They may not have fallen trees, cut shrubs, overgrown vegetation, or weeds more than seven inches in height.[15]
  • They may not conduct a barbeque in their front yard except on national holidays and they cannot have more than two people gathered around it and they cannot have alcoholic beverages visible within 150 feet of the grill.[16]
  • Pagedale’s children cannot wear pants below the waist in public or play on the residential streets in front of their homes.[17]
  • Cars must be within 500 feet of a lamp or source of illumination during nighttime hours.[18]
  • Windows in houses facing the street must have drapes or blinds “which are neatly hung, in a presentable appearance, properly maintained and in a state of good repair.”[19]
  • All doors or windows opening to the outside must have screens.[20]

About 40 percent of the tickets Pagedale issues are for non-traffic-related offenses.[21] It is almost difficult to believe, but in 2014, the city issued 2,255 non-traffic-related tickets, or roughly two per household.[22]

Once the city issues a citation for a violation of the Pagedale Code, the recipient becomes subject to Pagedale’s municipal court system. The court is held in Pagedale City Hall and the people that the city has ticketed line long before the session starts. The defendants face a dais with the city prosecutor, the Police Chief, the code inspector, the judge, and the municipal clerk all seated next to one another. Cases are dispatched with alacrity, sometimes mere few minutes.

There are few alternatives to participating in this process. Pagedale’s municipal court convenes twice a month at 6:30 P.M. While a defendant can plead “guilty” by mail, she can plead “not guilty” only by coming to court. If the defendant wishes to plead “guilty,” but cannot afford to pay her fine, she usually must come to court. The in-person appearance requirement makes attendance difficult for defendants who work at night, single parents, and those who do not have transportation. If the defendant does not come to court, she risks a warrant for her arrest.[23]

 

Why are ticketing and fines such a large part of life in Pagedale? The city’s budget suggests an answer. In 2013, Pagedale’s total revenue was $2,016,430.[24] Of this amount, $356,601, or 17.68 percent, in revenue came from fines and fees.[25] The cost to operate its court was $90,758, meaning that the courts brought in over a quarter of a million dollars in net revenue to the city.[26] Fines and fees are the second-largest source of revenue for the city, right after the city’s $.01 per dollar sales tax—nothing else even comes close.[27]

This means that to keep almost 20 percent of its budget in existence, the city has to keep its vigorous ticketing efforts up. In Pagedale’s FY 2014-15 Budget, the city anticipated receiving $353,000 in revenue from fines and fees.[28] Budgeting for a set amount of income sets a monetary target for code enforcement, the police, and Pagedale’s municipal court to reach, regardless of how many violations actually occur in the city.[29] And that is what happens—in 2013, the Pagedale Municipal Court heard 5,781 cases or an average of 241 cases for each twice-monthly evening session.[30]

Clients

The harm to Pagedale residents is significant, perpetual, and often completely overwhelming.

Many find themselves in a never-ending cycle of being fined because they have not kept their homes up to the city’s standards and then are unable to fix their homes to fit the city’s instructions because they are spending so much money paying off their fines. This leads to more fines, which prevents residents from making the changes the city demands, resulting in more fines, and so on. While a resident cannot be arrested for not having the ability to pay a fine, those who cannot pay often do not come to court. They, like those who choose their jobs or child care over attending municipal court, then become the subject of arrest warrants and fines for failure to appear.

The perpetual governmental harassment of innocent Americans for absurd violations has to stop. IJ has therefore teamed up with some Pagedale residents in order to challenge Pagedale’s outrageous ticketing practices.

Plaintiff Vincent Blount has accumulated $2,800 in fines, a significant portion of which comes from tickets regarding the home in which he lives. Paying off his long-term payment plan prevented him from making the improvements the city sought, leading to more fines and ultimately a threat from the city to demolish his home (even though it is not dangerous in any way). Vincent has also spent time in Pagedale jail as a result of his fines and fees and his failure to appear at one of Pagedale’s court sessions. Vincent doesn’t even own the home that is the subject of some of his tickets and fines; it belongs to his long-time partner, Valarie Whitner, who is also a plaintiff in this case.

Valarie has also been the subject of the city’s ticketing practices. She has received a set of warnings from the city, threatening her with fines and fees for alleged violations such as chipped paint on her home or lacking a screen door on the rear entrance to her home. It is unclear what part of the Pagedale Code even regulates chipped paint. Valarie has received generic tickets for “house not up to code” without further explanation. When Vincent lost his job, he and Valarie fell into arrears and were forced to help pay off the fines by taking out a pay-day loan with a 99% APR. Valarie was even arrested in front of her home and taken to Pagedale city hall because of an unspecified ticket.

Mildred Bryant is 84 years old and living out her golden years in the home she’s owned for 46 years. Mildred is an active woman, exercising three times a week at the local YWCA. Yet despite her active lifestyle, keeping up with Pagedale’s demands is proving to be an impossible task. Mildred received a notice from the city threatening legal action if she did not comply. The notice accused Mildred of at least 12 different code violations. Many of the modifications demanded by the notice are beyond Mildred’s physical and financial abilities. The notice demanded that she touch up or repaint her entire two-story home, including the foundation. Other demands are simply ridiculous, such as demanding that Mildred’s home have matching curtains, slats, or other such window treatment. Her son, whom she raised in Pagedale, occasionally helps her out with complying with the city’s demands. But the grace periods given by the city have elapsed and she faces a real threat of tickets, fines, and imprisonment.

These experiences are far too common in Pagedale. For that reason, these plaintiffs represent a class of Pagedale residents who have been, and will be, ticketed or threatened with tickets by the city since January 1, 2010. These class-action allegations seek to put an end to Pagedale’s unconstitutional treatment of all its residents, as well as the named plaintiffs.

Pagedale’s Policy of Treating its Residents like Walking, Talking ATMs Turns Policing on its head

By using its code enforcement mechanisms to satisfy its desire for revenue, Pagedale violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For Pagedale officials, the pressure to maintain the revenue stream from tickets and fines must be extreme. This pressure creates a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the Supreme Court has found deprives defendants of due process.[31] Put another way, a defendant does not receive the process due him when the court system is little more than a means of managing and feeding the city’s budget, not dispensing justice.

Moreover, as discussed above, Pagedale makes a number of harmless activities illegal, including not having matching curtains or having small cracks in driveways. Making such innocent conditions and activities subject to a monetary penalty violates the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Whether a fine is excessive depends on proportionality; that is, the amount of the penalty must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish.[32] Applying that standard here, any fine imposed by Pagedale for something like not having drapes on your windows would be excessive. This is because harmless activities are not offenses.

Pagedale’s code enforcement and justice system feed an ever-hungry city bureaucracy instead of protecting the safety and welfare of Pagedale residents. The city’s use of “failure to appear” citations also increases the number of interactions residents must have with the police, throws innocent people into the criminal justice system, and violates basic constitutional rights.

Pagedale is not alone in using the law as a revenue-generator. In 2014, the “Operation Rolling Thunder” police effort in South Carolina stopped more than 1,000 cars, ostensibly to look for drugs. From these stops, police issued more than 1,600 tickets but made only seven felony arrests. In San Diego, the city adds numerous fees to tickets, so that a $35 ticket ultimately ends up costing the defendant $235.[33] A victory in this case will put hungry jurisdictions in America on notice that they cannot use code enforcement as a mechanism to raise revenue.

Pagedale is the Latest Front in the War Against Policing for Profit

The Institute for Justice has been at the forefront of fighting efforts by the government to use civil enforcement actions as a means to raise revenue. In particular, IJ has led a successful campaign to end civil forfeiture. These victories include:

And IJ continues to fight for fundamental fairness and due process in these ongoing cases:

  • Challenging, in a class-action lawsuit, Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine, where the city uses civil asset forfeiture to grab millions of dollars’ worth of property each year by putting residents through a faux-legal process without a judge, a jury, or representation by an attorney; and
  • Challenging the federal government’s seizure, through a deputized local police officer, of $11,000 from a 24-year-old college student, who was carrying cash at an airport because his bank did not have many branches, he and his mother were moving, and he did not want the money to be lost in the move.

In 2010, IJ published Policing for Profit, the landmark report on civil forfeiture, an update of which IJ will be publishing in November 2015. And in 2014, IJ published Seize First, Question Later, the definitive study on IRS structuring forfeitures.

Organizing the People of St. Louis County

In addition to IJ’s litigation efforts in Pagedale, IJ will be undertaking efforts to help organize residents of cities across St. Louis County to fight back against money-hungry city governments. These efforts will be led by IJ’s Activism Manager, Brooke Fallon.

Litigation Team

CASE TEAM

The litigation team in the case is IJ Senior Attorney and Managing Attorney of the firm’s Washington Office, Bill Maurer. Working with him on the case are IJ attorney Joshua House and paralegal Casey Dainsberg.

About the Institute for Justice

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. IJ is a public-interest law firm that advances a rule of law under which individuals can control their destinies as free and responsible members of society. Through litigation, communication, outreach and strategic research, IJ secures protection for individual liberty and extends the benefits of freedom to those whose full enjoyment is denied by the government. IJ is based in Arlington, Va., and has offices in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Texas and Washington, as well as a Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School.


[1] Police Executive Research Forum, Overcoming the Challenges and Creating a Regional Approach to Policing in St. Louis City and County 19 (2015), available at http://www.policeforum.org/assets/stlouis.pdf (hereinafter “Overcoming the Challenges”).

[2] United States Census Bureau, http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml (go to “Community Facts” search box; then search “Pagedale, Missouri”; then follow “General Population and Housing Characteristics (Population, Age, Sex, Race, Households and Housing, …)” hyperlink) (last visited Oct. 19, 2015); City of Pagedale, Pagedale City Officials, http://cityofpagedale.com/#!amenities/cee5 (last visited Oct. 19, 2015).

[3] United States Census Bureau, http://census.gov/en.html (go to search box; then search “Pagedale city, MO) (last visited October 26, 2015).

[4] Jennifer S. Mann, Municipalities ticket for trees and toys, as traffic revenues decline, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 24, 2015, available at http://goo.gl/3WtqyG.

[5] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 479.359(1) (superseding Mo. Rev. Stat. § 302.341(2)).

[6] S.B. 5, 98th Gen. Assembly (Mo. 2015), available at http://www.senate.mo.gov/15info/pdf-bill/tat/SB5.pdf; Rebecca Rivas, Gov. Nixon signs municipal court reform bill, St. Louis American, July 10, 2015, http://www.stlamerican.com/news/local_news/article_aaf8a618-2677-11e5-a874-a7bd802639b3.html.

[7] Mann, supra note iv.

[8] ArchCity Defenders, Municipal Courts White Paper 6 (2014), http://www.archcitydefenders.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/ArchCity-Defenders-Municipal-Courts-Whitepaper.pdf (hereinafter, “White Paper”)

[9] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 405.080(A).

[10] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 405.210(A)(5).

[11] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 405.270(A).

[12] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 345.080.

[13] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 345.030.

[14] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 215.010(A)(19).

[15] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 215.110(A).

[16] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 210.750.

[17] Pagedale, Mo., Code §§ 210.770, 210.720(A).

[18] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 350.050.

[19] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 515.060(A)(3)(b).

[20] Pagedale, Mo., Code § 515.060(A)(4)(a).

[21] Mann, supra note iv.

[22]Id.

[23] City of Pagedale, Municipal Court, http://www.cityofpagedale.com/#!municipal-court/cme6 (last visited Oct. 19, 2015); Pagedale, Mo., Code § 125.260(A)(1) (Failure to Appear in Municipal Court), available at http://ecode360.com/29517546.

[24] Better Together, Public Safety—Municipal Courts 25 (Oct. 2014), http://www.bettertogetherstl.com/ wp-content/uploads/2014/10/BT-Municipal-Courts-Report-Full-Report1.pdf (hereinafter, “Public Safety”). According to Pagedale’s annual operating budget for FY 2013-14, Pagedale’s total revenue for that fiscal year was $2,057,766. City of Pagedale, Annual Operating Budget 5 (2014), available at http://media.wix.com/ugd/ 0d0dc5_4cea0f75d54a414c81aa652d360e5c2e.pdf (hereinafter “Pagedale Budget”).

[25] Public Safety at 25. In FY 2013-14, Pagedale collected $396,471 in court fines, bond fees, warrant fees, and forfeited bonds. Pagedale Budget at 5.

[26] Public Safety at 28.

[27] Pagedale Budget at 4.

[28] Id. at 4. The city also budgeted for a total of $87,000 in additional revenue from bonds forfeited and warrant fees together.

[29] Overcoming the Challenges at 36.

[30] Public Safety at 34.

[31] Ward v. Vill. of Monroeville, 409 U.S. 57, 61 (1972); Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510, 523 (1927).

[32] U.S. v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321, 328 (1998).

[33] Jack Hitt, Police Shootings Won’t Stop Unless We Also Stop Shaking Down Black People, Mother Jones (Sept.-Oct. 2015), available at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/07/police-shootings-traffic-stops-excessive-fines.

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