It is rare to report in-depth on the same topic more than once in this space. But sometimes things happen to illustrate a point in ways not previously discussed. This week, on Wednesday, the House Committee on Civil and Criminal Proceedings heard House Bill 332, a bill I sponsored that reduced from 30 to 10 percent the amount of general revenue that local governments can derive from traffic fines and court costs.
In November, I wrote that there were some small municipalities in St. Louis County that “more closely resembled organized troll guilds than legitimate government” because their revenues rely more on traffic tickets extracted from residents and passers-by than a stable tax base. Around the same time, I went on the radio and identified Edmundson as an offender-city.
On Wednesday, Mayor John Gwaltney of Edmundson decided to enlighten the committee of the bill’s flaws.. Mayor Gwaltney told the committee his municipality only enforced traffic laws for the right reasons, and his city was “not dependent” on fines and fees to operate. He then claimed HB 332 was “stepping into lawlessness, which leads to anarchy.”
Mayor Gwaltney’s comments suggest he never bothered to read the bill. Otherwise, he would have seen that the bill in no way constrains law enforcement’s ability to enforce the law. Officers remain free to write tickets for any offense. The bill, instead, merely limits government power to use their criminal justice system for the purpose of raising revenue.
Mayor Gwaltney’s willful ignorance of the bill is simply another installment in his troubled history with the truth. He may have testified that he does not run his city like an organized troll guild, but his own words betray him. Last spring, Gwaltney perceived a problem with his police force. In his mind, they weren’t writing enough tickets. So, before the public paid attention, Gwaltney decided to fix this “problem.”
On April 18, Gwaltney sent a memo to every Edmundson police officer. It was delivered with the officer’s pay checks. Gwaltney informed officers that he had “noticed a marked downturn in traffic and other tickets.” While denying a quota system out of one side of his mouth, he added from the other, “I wish to take this opportunity to remind you that the tickets that you write do add to the revenue on which the P.D. budget is established and will directly affect pay adjustments at budget time.” Gwaltney continued, “As budget time approaches, please make a self-evaluation of your work habits and motivations, then make the changes that you see will be fair to yourself and the city.”
When questioned about his memo, Gwaltney admitted that he judged officers not by the quality of their work but the quantity of tickets they wrote. “How do you quantify whether an officer is doing his job without counting tickets?,” he asked committee members on multiple occasions.
Gwaltney unwittingly made the case for why House Bill 332 is necessary. Edmundson absolutely uses its police department and municipal court for revenue purposes, not just enforcing the law. In 2013, 35 percent of its budget came from traffic tickets. (Jefferson City, by comparison, was around three percent.)
While Gwaltney and other municipal officials fight the bill, police officers have been neutral or, in some cases, supportive. The Senate bill has been endorsed by the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association. That’s because, as Gwaltney’s memo and testimony illustrate, police officers are not the problem. Instead, the problem is small-time politicians like Mayor Gwaltney who pressure good police officers with unwritten ticket quotas.
A few representatives asked insightful questions about whether 10 percent was the appropriate threshold. Despite sponsoring this bill, I don’t believe that it is. The appropriate number is zero. Consider the opposing argument for a moment.. First, they claim their chief interest is public safety. Next they suggest that law enforcement will stop enforcing the law unless the city’s politicians are allowed to use the proceeds for more than 10 percent of their budget. Sorry, but if law enforcement is a priority, they will find a way to fund their budget with something other than their court system – just as the overwhelming majority of municipalities in the state already do.
Evidence of abuse of municipal court systems is rampant in St. Louis. Some cities have even budgeted for dramatic increases in traffic fines. For example, Dellwood adopted a budget which predicted a nearly 40 percent increase in traffic fines. In Ferguson, the city council refrained from predict-the-future budgeting, but traffic fine revenue increased by nearly 50 percent from 2011 to 2012, and another 15 percent the following year.
The purpose of our criminal justice system is three-fold: to punish, deter, and rehabilitate.
We don’t have criminal or traffic laws to raise revenue. This fundamental philosophy of limited government is present in our state constitution, Article IX, section 7 of which requires that the “clear proceeds of all penalties, forfeitures, and fines” for breach of the “penal laws” of state must be distributed to schools – not municipal, county, or state budgets. House Bill 332 doesn’t reach the philosophically optimum number, but it does improve the law.