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By November 16, 2015 Read More →

Wrong to Make Police Tax Collectors


Since the incident in Ferguson in August, 2014, people have been taking a closer look at the places like St. Louis County where instead of raising taxes, cities, and counties are forcing the police to enforce a number of laws—some of which are very unfair—designed to bring in revenue rather than keep the community safe and punish wrongdoing that could hurt others.

Yesterday, The New York Times ran an editorial—“Policing for Profit in St. Louis County”—that is critical of these policies that seem to be embraced by everyone in the power structure and, of course, the police have no choice but to enforce the laws, no matter how controversial or seemingly unfair.

Here it is in its entirety:

Policing for Profit in St. Louis County

As many unwary drivers can attest, small-town speed traps have long been a steady source of income for local governments. But “policing for profit” acquired sinister overtones when a Justice Department investigation into the shooting and racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., drew attention to the fact that some towns in St. Louis County derived 40 percent or more of their revenue by repeatedly nailing citizens with traffic fines and fees for petty violations.
It turned out that just about anyone in authority—cops, judges, city leaders—was in on the game. The losers were disproportionately African-Americans, who either paid the fines or lost their licenses or went to jail. That, in turn, could lead to job loss, eviction and destitution.

The Missouri Legislature has since set limits on how much of a city’s revenue can come from traffic fines. But municipal creativity, at least in St. Louis County, seems boundless. An investigation by The St. Louis Post Dispatch this spring warned that towns in the county might start looking for cash in violations of building codes and neatness ordinances.

According to a new civil rights lawsuit, the town of Pagedale, which is predominately African-American, has done just that—indeed, has been doing so for some time—with spectacular financial results.

According to the lawsuit, filed against the town government by the Institute for Justice, Pagedale has increased the number of nontraffic tickets handed out to citizens by nearly 500 percent since 2010 and routinely threatens actions against people for offenses that are not even listed in the municipal code.

The city can fine or jail people for not walking on the right side of crosswalks; barbecuing in the front yard, except on national holidays; playing in the street; wearing one’s pants below the waist in public; and failing to have a screen on every door. The city can even issue a ticket if it does not like the look of a homeowner’s drapes or if the window blinds are not “neatly hung.”

Those who receive tickets become subject to the Byzantine workings of the Pagedale municipal court, which is in session two days a month in the early evening, when low-income workers and single parents are often unable to appear. Defendants who don’t show up are subject to an arrest warrant, which brings with it additional fines, fees and court costs. And while Pagedale has only about 3,300 residents, the municipal court, according to the lawsuit, heard an astonishing 5,781 cases in 2013. The court costs a little more than $90,000 to operate, but the city netted more than a quarter of a million dollars in revenue.

These fines are an enormous hardship for the poor and for elderly homeowners on fixed incomes. Consider the plaintiff Valarie Whitner. The city hauled her into court for petty violations, like chipped paint and a missing screen door, and actually threatened to demolish her home. She eventually took out a ruinously priced payday loan to make the changes the city wanted.

Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri has already moved to address one core problem, which is that municipalities are often too tiny—with too small a tax base—to support governments, courts and independent police departments. A state commission he convened has recommended consolidating police departments and municipal courts to save money. Whether or not this happens, the federal courts need to put an end to the widespread practice of for-profit policing that is driving economically vulnerable people into insolvency.

Posted in: The Job

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