In 2015, IJ took on a wildly abusive fines and fees scheme in Pagedale, Missouri. The case was our second-ever class action lawsuit, and the practices we targeted affected the entire town. This May, our big ambitions paid off when we secured a groundbreaking consent decree between the city of Pagedale and the thousands of people we represented—one that fundamentally transforms the city’s ticketing policies, housing code, and municipal court practices.
The city treated its citizens like walking ATMs, relying on fines and fees derived from tickets as an essential revenue source.
Located in St. Louis County, Pagedale has about 3,000 residents, many of whom live under the poverty line. Despite this, the city treated its citizens like walking ATMs, relying on fines and fees derived from tickets as an essential revenue source. The numbers were astounding:
• From January 2010 to October 2016, the city issued 32,229 tickets to 18,678 different people, both residents of the town and those just passing through.
• The city’s municipal court, which met twice a month on Thursday evenings, heard a staggering number of cases. In 2013 alone, it heard 5,781 cases, or an average of 241 cases per night.
• From 2010 to 2014, revenue from fines and fees composed between 16 and 23 percent of the city’s general revenue funds—so much that the city even budgeted for it.
These were not just traffic tickets, either. After Missouri restricted the percentage of revenue from traffic tickets that a municipality could keep, the number of tickets Pagedale issued for housing violations exploded, resulting in the city citing 39 percent of its entire adult population for housing violations.
These violations were often for trivial matters. The city could—and did—ticket residents for not having curtains on basement windows, having mismatched blinds, and having more than three people at a barbecue. The city even prosecuted residents for conditions that were not forbidden by the municipal code, like having a crack in one’s driveway. Residents often had no way of knowing why the city was ticketing them at all, as their citations lacked any information about the alleged offense.
This constant stream of tickets resulted in a cycle of debt for city residents and led to poverty, job loss, and even arrest. As IJ argued in our lawsuit, the city’s reliance on revenue from fines and fees violated the due process rights of Pagedale residents by injecting an impermissible financial interest into the city’s justice system. Furthermore, by making harmless conditions around residents’ homes illegal, the city violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
After more than two years of litigation, a federal judge in Missouri approved a sweeping consent decree, which implements important reforms to Pagedale’s municipal court and municipal code. Among other things, the city must now:
• Repeal the sections of the Pagedale municipal code that gave it the power to ticket harmless conditions.
• Decline to prosecute all pending cases unless the city prosecutor finds good cause to continue prosecution.
• Dismiss any remaining fines and fees in cases where the defendant has paid more money than the initial amount of the fine.
• Stop ticketing people for conditions that are not in its municipal code.
IJ will monitor the city’s compliance and can press the court to enforce these requirements if necessary. Our success in Pagedale gives us momentum and a framework for reform in other cities that use their justice systems to raise revenue. As our new case in Doraville shows (see page 14), we will fight this abuse until it is stopped altogether.