The Missouri Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear an interesting and important case Tuesday morning in Kansas City. The dispute, involving fees tacked on to traffic tickets and other ordinance violations, may eventually clarify who should pay for the goods and services we use.
In 2013, Missouri told municipal judges to collect a $3 surcharge from the lawbreakers they see. The money shores up the wobbly pension fund for retired sheriffs and their spouses.
At the time, some cities and judges complained. Why, they asked, should city violators pay for the retirements of county sheriffs? The cities sued to stop the $3 fee.
A circuit judge upheld the surcharge, leading to Tuesday’sappeal hearing.
The dustup seems inconsequential to many of us. In the context of a $75 speeding ticket, another $3 seems like a footnote, and if we don’t get speeding tickets, it’s a nonissue.
Yet Missouri’s politicians repeatedly use tack-on fees to pay for a variety of public programs. Kansas City’s Municipal Court, for example, collects almost $50 in added fees for moving violations, money that is used for programs to combat domestic violence, courthouse maintenance and — yes — retired sheriffs.
It could be worse. Missouri lawmakers recently authorized a $10 surcharge in some circuit courts to pay for repairs and upgrades, a bill Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed. “The increasingly common practice of looking to the courts to raise funds must stop,” he wrote.
The disagreement seems academic, but it isn’t. Ferguson erupted in part because its municipal court was used to raise money for city services — forcing its residents, most often poor, to pay for things the public consumed.
Calling court surcharges “user fees” misses the point. Everyone “uses” a public service like a courthouse because everyone benefits from a working legal system.
You may never need the fire department, but you pay for one. Users generally don’t pay for police or public parks — or, for that matter, the state legislature. Everyone pays.
The dispute over the $3 sheriffs’ fee tests that idea although it isn’t a perfect case. Missouri gets the fee in county courts, for example, and the plaintiffs are fine with that.
Municipal courts, they say, are different.
If the surcharge is upheld, a friend-of-the-court brief said, “the gates will be opened for the next favorite cause of the legislature, to use these courts as convenient collection stations” for taxes.
And “those who suffer most,” the brief claims, “will be the poor.”