By Josh Mitchell
Missourian Staff Writer
St. Clair Police Chief Bill Hammack said some concerns he had about a new law that overhauled municipal courts have been alleviated.
Originally, he was worried that some people may not be held accountable for their actions under the new law.
But since then Hammack said he has met with the municipal judge and city attorney and some of his concerns have been taken care of.
The possibility that some people could get out of paying fines by claiming they could not afford to pay caught the chief’s attention.
“If an individual is deemed indigent they don’t have to pay the same fines that everyone else pays or may not have to pay any of their fines,” Hammack said.
People can get a form from the court to state their income, number of dependents, bills and assets, he said.
“You can’t verify what they’re putting on that paper,” Hammack said, adding that someone could “theoretically” get out of paying fines.
People who can’t pay fines can still have repercussions for their actions through community service, said David Arand, who is the municipal court judge in St. Clair and Union.
There is a high standard for a person to be declared indigent, such as being homeless and living in a car, having mental health problems that preclude employment and being disabled, the judge said.
Even before the new municipal court law was passed, Arand said his courts were already flexible in giving people time to pay their fines or offering community service.
“We have never detained anybody in court for not being able to pay,” Arand said.
Very few people fill out the indigent application, the judge added.
Washington Municipal Court Clerk Cindy Buescher said people can usually afford to pay something each month.
“If they’re paying for things that I call frills, they should be able to pay us something,” Buescher said.
But she said if people have no money the court is supposed to give them a form to fill out.
Just because people may have a low income does not mean they should not be held accountable for their actions, Hammack said.
“If we find out somebody has been deemed indigent by our courts we will no longer run them through our court, we will run them through state court where they will be held accountable,” Hammack said.
Other than traffic citations, the municipal court also deals with other cases such as assaults and littering, the chief noted.
A lot of the people who go through the court are low income because they don’t work, he said.
Even homeless people need to be held accountable if they commit crimes, he said.
Hammack said he does not think the municipal court legislation was a good bill.
“This law was passed based on a knee-jerk reaction to a handful of municipal courts in small municipalities up in North St. Louis County that were actually using their municipal courts and traffic enforcement for a major part of their revenue sources in those cities, which is wrong,” Hammack said.
Traffic enforcement is supposed to be for public safety, not revenue, Hammack noted.
But when the law passed it punished every municipal court in the state and was an “overreach,” Hammack asserted.
His department does not issue excessive citations, he said, adding that it averages about three to four a day.
Local Courts Well Run, Official Says
Municipal courts in this area are run very well, said St. Clair City Attorney Kurt Voss. The bill was an attempt to deal with issues in St. Louis County municipalities, he said.
One aspect of the law lowered the amount of general operating revenue that municipalities can get from traffic fines from 30 percent to 20 percent and 12.5 percent for cities in St. Louis County. A previous Missourian analysis found that local cities were already below the 20 percent limit.
The money from the courts in St. Clair and Union has never been a big part of those cities’ budgets, Arand noted.
The bill also says that municipal court fines and court costs must not exceed $300 for minor traffic violations and that a person should not be sentenced to jail for a minor traffic violation unless it involves factors such as alcohol or endangering others.
It also says that people in custody from a municipal court arrest warrant should have a chance to be heard by a judge within 48 hours for minor traffic violations and 72 hours for other charges.
That also was not a problem for the courts in St. Clair and Union, Arand said.
“We never held anybody more than 48 hours because of the extreme cost to each city,” Arand said, noting that St. Clair and Union do not have their own jails and have to pay the county to hold people.
The bill also says no additional charges should be assessed for failure to appear on minor traffic violations. Arand said his courts have not issued failure to appear charges since he has been judge.
“It really doesn’t affect our courts that much,” he said.
Likewise, the Pacific Municipal Court for the most part was already operating in compliance with the guidelines of the new law, said Nina Adams, court clerk.