Missouri bill would crack down on skipping traffic court, altering a post-Ferguson reform

(The Center Square) – A Missouri law reforming municipal courts after the 2014 protests in Ferguson resulted in unintended consequences and needs correction, according to the sponsor of a bill in the House of Representatives.

For the third straight legislative session, Rep. Mike Haffner, R-Pleasant Hill, is sponsoring legislation to increase the consequences for failing to appear in municipal court for minor traffic violations. House Bill 2007 will require municipal courts to inform defendants it “may” instruct the Department of Revenue to suspend the defendant’s driver’s license if they fail to respond to minor traffic violations or fail to appear on two court dates without good cause. The Local Government Committee on Thursday voted 11-1 to approve the legislation before referring it to the Rules-Administrative Oversight Committee.

Senate Bill 5, sponsored by Eric Schmitt, now Attorney General and a candidate for the seat of retiring Republican U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, limited the prosecution of minor traffic violations in municipal courts. Protestors and activists challenging the Ferguson Police Department and other small municipalities in the state successfully motivated legislators to reduce the power of municipal courts to “stack” fines from multiple violations against defendants.

“There’s a lot of good things that Senate Bill 5 did, such as putting a cap on the amount of operating revenue that municipalities are allowed to collect for traffic violations,” Haffner said during testimony on Wednesday. “But, unfortunately, what it did is… there were no ramifications on failure to appear within a municipal court.”

Haffner testified failures to appear in municipal court increased threefold across the state. However, Haffner emphasized his legislation doesn’t weaken Senate Bill 5.

“The unintended consequences resulted in the inability of many municipalities to operate efficiently, fairly and responsibly to the community who rely on these courts to ensure their health, safety and general welfare,” Haffner said.

The proposed legislation will require the court to inform defendants it “may instruct the Department of Revenue to suspend the defendant’s license” when a Missouri resident is charged with only a minor traffic violation and fails to answer the charge or fails to appear on two return court dates without good cause. The legislation also allows limited driving privileges while the license is suspended, such as going to work, buying groceries, seeking medical treatment or attending houses of worship.

“Why ‘may’ and not ‘shall,'” Rep. Jim Murphy, R-St. Louis, asked Haffner during the hearing. “They’ve broken the law. They’ve refused to show up for two court (appearances) and we’re going to give them a little more mercy?”

Haffner said he is open to discussing the bill’s language but stated the word “may” is necessary to move through the legislative process.

“There’s nothing to say you can’t revoke the license,” Rep. Bridget Walsh Moore, D-St. Louis, said during the hearing. “But having two (court dates), allowing no wiggle room for extenuating circumstances… knowing most of the people who don’t appear are already under financial burdens and can’t get off work or have regular transportation, I appreciate the wiggle room and, again, it’s at the judge’s discretion.”

Adam Dustman, interim chief of the Independence Police Department, mentioned the reforms made in Senate Bill 5 were necessary and supported by the City of Independence. However, he said the legislation made it difficult for cities and law enforcement to ensure public safety through traffic laws. Dustman testified the number of tickets given by officers from 2015 to 2019 decreased by 41%. The number of defendants failing to appear increased by 68%.

“This bill would give judges leeway and discretion in making these decisions and will not increase or institute new fines,” Dustman said. “We’re not seeking to undo the necessary reforms of the past.”

Rep. Joe Adams, the committee’s ranking Democrat and the former mayor of University City near Ferguson, spoke favorably of the legislation and said he was somewhat opposed to Senate Bill 5 because it diminished the court’s ability to enforce laws.

“We have got to bring some respect, we have got to bring some integrity back to the courts,” Haffner said. “In our communities, they’ve kind of made a laughingstock municipal courts and there needs to be an adjustment.”

Featured photo courtesy of Tim Bommel, House Photographer

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