ST. LOUIS—Imagine if a homeowners or condo association had a court, a prosecutor and a police force. And instead of just annoying you with trivial nitpicking, the association could ticket, fine, and even send you to jail. And what would it be like if the association had an incentive to ticket you as much as possible because it needed as much money as it could get its hands on?
For the residents of the small town of Pagedale, Mo., that scenario is an unfortunate reality. Over the last five years, the cash-strapped city has issued tickets and fines for a host of trivial matters, such as having mismatched curtains. Relying on revenue from fines is unconstitutional, however, so today the Institute for Justice (IJ) is teaming up with a group of residents to file a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s practice of using municipal code tickets and fines to feed the city’s coffers.
Among the many issues Pagedale’s city code authorizes residents to be ticketed for, are:
- 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 town has even ticketed residents for things that aren’t even illegal, like having a small crack in a front walk, chipping paint on a building foundation, or an unpainted wood fence.
“This case demonstrates that property rights are fundamentally civil rights,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney William Mauer, who is lead counsel in the lawsuit. “Pagedale treats its residents like walking, talking ATMs, making withdrawals by issuing tickets for ridiculous things that no city has a right to dictate.”
In the last five years, the number of non-traffic municipal fines issued by Pagedale has increased by nearly 500 percent. In 2014, the city, which has about 3,300 residents, issued 2,255 non-traffic related tickets. Revenue from non-traffic tickets makes up almost 20 percent of the city’s budget, and the city specifically budgets present and future revenue expected to be generated by the city’s municipal court.
“By targeting a set amount of revenue from fines and fees from its residents, Pagedale turns policing upside-down,” said IJ attorney Josh House. “Rather than protecting and serving the public, Pagedale sets a revenue goal and then uses its code enforcement powers to achieve it.”
Valarie Whitner and Vincent Blount, who are the lead plaintiffs in the case, have endured the brunt of Pagedale’s policing for profit. Together they’ve received more than $2,800 in fines for issues with their modest home on Page Ave. They received tickets for a variety of outrageous issues, like having chipping paint on a downspout, not having a screen door on the rear entrance of their home, and having weeds growing in their vegetable garden. They even received generic tickets saying the home was “not up to code,” without explaining what was wrong. Pagedale ultimately threatened their home with demolition, even though it is not dangerous in any way. As the fines rack up, Valarie and Vincent have less money to make the mandated repairs. Valarie, who works nights at a nearby hospital, was even forced to take out payday loans to keep her head above water.
“Every morning I wake up worried that I’ll get another ticket,” said Valarie Whitner. “It is already hard enough to make ends meet. This is life in Pagedale.”
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. The lawsuit complaint argues:
The need to generate revenue creates an unconstitutional incentive for Pagedale’s prosecutors and municipal court to convict a defendant, regardless of whether Pagedale personnel respond to this incentive. As such, the need to generate revenue creates a substantial risk of bias and prejudgment. This incentive to convict deprives the named Plaintiffs and those similarly situated of the due process of the law.
IJ’s team of lawyers and community activists have been working on the ground in Pagedale for six months. In August of 2015, they hosted a community town hall meeting to discuss the fines. IJ also arranged for pro bono counsel to represent some citizens.
IJ has been at the forefront of fighting policing for profit. In particular, IJ has also led a pathbreaking campaign to end civil forfeiture.
“This case demonstrates that governments’ abuse of power takes all forms,” said IJ President Chip Mellor. “And wherever governments abuse citizens’ ability to live in peace in their own homes, IJ will be there to stand up for their rights. No one should have to live in the fear of being ticketed or fined for the sake of raising revenue.”
Find out more about the lawsuit at www.ij.org/case/pagedale-municipal-fines/