Federal Court Approves Historic Consent Decree Ending “Policing for Profit” in Pagedale, Mo.
On Friday afternoon, Federal Judge Rodney W. Sippel granted final approval to a groundbreaking consent decree that will significantly reform the city of Pagedale, Missouri, and its ticketing policies, housing code, and municipal court. The consent decree is the end result of a class-action lawsuit brought in 2015 by people ticketed and threatened with tickets by the city. The suit alleged that the city identified, ticketed, prosecuted, and convicted its residents and others not for legitimate health and safety reasons but rather to raise revenue for the city.
“Judge Sippel’s approval finally brings the city of Pagedale’s criminal and civil justice system into compliance with the requirements of the Constitution,” said Bill Maurer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represented the class. “The consent decree provides defendants with meaningful protections as they move through the city’s justice system. We appreciate the city’s willingness to come to the table and agree to implement these critical and sweeping reforms.”
Located in north St. Louis County, Missouri, Pagedale is a town of about 3,000 residents, many of whom live under the poverty line. Despite the limited resources of its residents, the city relied on fines and fees derived from tickets as an essential revenue source for the chronically deficit-ridden city. A review of the city’s budget and ticketing information during litigation revealed just how ubiquitous ticketing has become in the city.
- From January 1, 2010, to October 2016, the city issued 32,229 tickets.
- During this time, the city ticketed 18,678 different people.
- 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.
- Tickets were the city’s second-largest source of revenue—from 2010 to 2014, revenue from fines and fees comprised between 16% to 23% of its general revenue funds.
These were not just traffic tickets, either. After the state of Missouri restricted the percentage of revenue from traffic tickets that a municipality could keep, the number of tickets Pagedale issued for housing violations exploded, with the end result being that 39% of the entire adult population of the city were cited for housing violations.
These violations were often for trivial matters, not for any legitimate or harmful conditions. Pagedale residents could be—and were—ticketed for such things as not having curtains on their basement windows, having mismatched blinds, having more than three people at a barbecue, and having a basketball hoop in the front of their house. The city even prosecuted residents for conditions that were not forbidden by the municipal code, like having a crack in one’s driveway or an untreated fence. While residents were sometimes cited for questionable violations, other times they had no way to know the basis of the citation at all; many violations lacked any information about the nature of the alleged offense By not knowing what they’d done wrong, residents found it almost impossible to defend themselves.
The end result for many Pagedale residents was a constant stream of tickets and a never-ending cycle of debt that often led to poverty, loss of one’s job, arrest, and alienation from society.
In 2015, three Pagedale residents—Valarie Whitner, Vincent Blount, and Mildred Bryant—sued the city on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated. Represented for free by the national public interest law firm the Institute for Justice and a St. Louis team from the global law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLC, the residents brought a class action suit alleging that the city’s reliance on revenue from fines and fees violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee by interjecting an impermissible institutional financial interest into the city’s civil and criminal justice system. The suit also alleged that the city’s policy of making harmless conditions around residents’ homes subject to fines and fees violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
After over two years of litigation, the parties negotiated the consent decree approved by Judge Sippel on Friday. Under the consent decree, the city has agreed to implement the following reforms, some of which have already been put in place:
- It will eliminate all pending charges, fines, and fees associated with a defendant’s failure to appear;
- It will decline to prosecute all pending cases in the city unless the city prosecutor finds good cause to continue prosecution;
- It will dismiss any remaining fines and fees in cases where the defendant has paid more money than the initial amount of the fine;
- It will repeal the city’s “Nuisances” and “Minimum Housing Standards” sections of its municipal code, where the city made many harmless conditions illegal, and replace these sections with the St. Louis County Property Maintenance Code;
- It will repeal numerous other sections of the Pagedale Municipal Code that gave the city the power to ticket harmless conditions;
- The city will stop ticketing people for conditions that are not in its municipal code;
- The tickets issued by the city will inform the defendant of the charges brought against him or her, the potential penalty, the options for resolving the charge, pending deadlines, the date and time of any court sessions, and the procedure for seeking a continuance;
- The city will distribute to defendants in its municipal court a handout that provides them with basic information about the court process and information about how to pay any fine in installments;
- The city will give defendants the option of attending court sessions in the evening or during the day so that attendance will not affect their jobs;
- The city’s municipal court will not hold more than 7 trials per session;
- The city will permit people to pay their fines and fees online and not in person;
- The city will not penalize people for their failure to appear in court for minor traffic violations and violations of its municipal ordinance;
- The city’s municipal court will hold a contempt hearing before imposing any penalty for failure to pay a fine or fee; and
- The city’s municipal court will not sentence anyone to incarceration unless the defendant is represented by counsel or has knowingly and voluntarily waived their right to counsel.
The plaintiffs will monitor the city’s compliance with the consent decree through regular reports by the city regarding its financial condition and the number of active cases and fines and fees it has collected. If the plaintiffs believe the city is not complying with the consent decree, the plaintiffs can mandate to meet with the city and, if this is unsuccessful, move the court to enforce compliance. The district court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the provisions of the consent decree.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that municipalities cannot have a financial interest in convicting defendants,” said IJ attorney Joshua House. “We are happy to see Pagedale put such financial interests aside and focus instead on the Constitution’s requirements of due process and fairness.”
“Finally, my nightmare is over,” said Pagedale homeowner and class representative Valarie Whitner. “Every morning I woke up worried that I’d get another ticket. Now I can sleep easy and get on with my life.”
“Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner is proud to have made a difference in the lives of so many residents of North St. Louis County through this litigation,” said Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner Partner Ben Clark. “All St. Louisans, like all Americans, deserve the fundamental protections our Constitution guarantees, and we are thrilled to have played a part in ensuring those rights are protected in our own backyard.”
“Across the country, the government has resorted to using policing for profit to wrest money from individuals who are often the poorest and most vulnerable among us,” said IJ President Scott Bullock. “This case, like IJ’s work in fighting civil forfeiture, is a vital part of IJ’s efforts to end this abusive and short-sighted practice. Because the Constitution forbids the government from using the justice system as a means to raise revenue, IJ will continue this fight across the country.”