Missourians who’ve paid a speeding or parking ticket in the last few years will want to pay close attention to a class-action lawsuit recently filed in Jackson County Circuit Court.
Millions of dollars in ticket surcharges, past and future, are at stake.
So is a more fundamental issue: unwisely using court fines to raise money for government programs, instead of increasing taxes or cutting spending somewhere else.
Our story begins in May, when two local men, Daven Fowler and Jerry Keller, got speeding tickets in Kansas City. When they paid their fines, a $3 surcharge had been added to the penalty.
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What was the $3 for? Better equipment for police? Paperwork?
No. The $3 fee, added to every parking and speeding ticket in Kansas City Municipal Court, pays for the retirement of roughly 125 former county sheriffs in Missouri. County-based circuit courts have collected the fee for years, but municipal courts were exempt until 2013.
That year, under circumstances that remain murky, the state’s court administrator reversed himself and ordered judges to collect the $3 fee from every violator appearing in virtually every municipal court in Missouri.
Some judges and some cities balked. They found it outrageous that speeders were required to pay into the sheriffs’ once-wobbly pension fund — sheriffs have no role in city courts. To this day, some cities refuse to collect the fee.
Fowler and Keller are upset, too. In August, they sued the Missouri Sheriff’s Retirement System and asked a Jackson County judge to declare the $3 surcharge unconstitutional.
“The $3 surcharge paid by plaintiffs bears no reasonable relationship to the expenses of administration of justice in Missouri’s municipal courts,” the lawsuit claims.
Notably, the pair filed their lawsuit as a class action. That means a court could order a refund to every Missouri citizen who’s ever paid the $3 surcharge in a municipal court. That could be serious money. In 2013, the state estimated the $3 fee would raise $1.5 million annually.
We welcome the court case. It could be a turning point in the effort to stop lawmakers from using city courts as a piggy bank for programs they don’t want to fund.
That $3 fee is not the only surcharge tacked on to speeding tickets in Missouri. The city court collects $7.50 for crime victims, and another $4 for domestic violence shelters. There’s a $2 fine for an “inmate prisoner detainee security fund.” Add $2 for law enforcement training. The courthouse Restoration and Maintenance Fund gets $5 a ticket. And, of course, $3 for the retired sheriffs.
Cha-ching. Kansas City’s Municipal Court adds $48.50 to every speeding ticket, and $22.50 for every parking ticket, for court costs and surcharges.
Any single ticket-funded program might be worthwhile. Added together, the surcharges are unfair, particularly to lower-income Missourians.
One of the biggest and most important complaints in the aftermath of the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., was about the blatant use of city courts as a revenue-raising source. There has been some progress on that front, but more must be done.
Lawmakers should ask all taxpayers to support needed programs, not just speeders. We hope a judge sees it that way, too.