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Small Town Uses Code Enforcement Laws For Big Payoffs

Pagedale, Missouri, is a lower-income city outside St. Louis with about 3,300 residents. For many in Pagedale, trying to stay afloat is an everyday struggle. But the local government’s budget relies heavily on revenue from fines and fees levied against its residents for harmless activities, such as having a barbecue in their front yard or letting their kids play on the street in front of their homes.

The amount of money Pagedale has raised from fining its residents is astounding. In 2013, Pagedale’s total revenue was $2,016,430. Of this amount, $356,601 came from fines and fees—the second-largest source of income for the city.

Pagedale is a small town, but for 2014–2015 it budgeted to receive $353,000 in fines and fees. Missouri limits how much money local governments can get from traffic tickets, so about 40 percent of the tickets Pagedale issued are for non-traffic-related offenses. In 2014, the city issued 2,255 non-traffic-related tickets. That is roughly two tickets per household.

The harm to Pagedale residents is significant, perpetual and completely overwhelming. Many find themselves being fined because they have not kept their homes up to the city’s unrealistic standards and then being unable to fix their homes because they are spending so much money paying off their tickets.

This is what has happened to long-time partners Vincent Blount and Valarie Whitner, two Pagedale residents IJ represents. Vincent and Valarie accumulated $2,800 in fines. Paying the fines off prevented the couple from making the improvements the city sought, leading to more fines and ultimately a threat from the city to demolish their home—even though it is not dangerous to live in. When Vincent lost his job, the couple fell into more debt and was forced to help pay off the fines by taking a payday loan with nearly 100 percent APR. Vincent has even spent time in jail as a result of the fines.

Pagedale’s policy of raising revenue by ticketing, convicting, fining and even jailing its residents turns policing on its head. Rather than ensure that the public is protected and wrongdoers punished, Pagedale sets a revenue goal and then uses its code enforcement powers to achieve it.

Arbitrarily using code enforcement to raise revenue is unconstitutional. That is why the Institute for Justice is representing Pagedale residents in a class-action civil rights lawsuit to stop the city from continuing to use its code enforcement powers to turn its residents into ATMs.

Bill Maurer is the managing attorney of the IJ Washington office.

 

Break the Rules and Face Fines

  • Residents may not walk on the left side of crosswalks.
  • Residents may not conduct a barbecue in their front yard except on national holidays, and they cannot have more than two people gathered around the grill.
  • Children may not play on residential streets in front of their homes.
  • Cars must be within 500 feet of a lamp or other source of illumination during nighttime hours.
  • 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.”
  • All doors or windows opening to the outside must have screens.

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