Few pieces of legislation before the Missouri General Assembly have raised the ire of local officials in Kansas City and Jackson County more than Senate Bill 572.
Seen as an effort to rein in Missouri cities that are using court fines as a major revenue generator — and in the process trapping low-income citizens in a cycle of debt — the legislation passed the Senate earlier this year with provisions eliminating jail time for a host of traffic and municipal offenses and capping fines and court costs at $200.
Court officials and local leaders vehemently opposed the legislation, arguing the restrictions would hurt efforts to hold scofflaws accountable, especially in regard to vacant and abandoned property.
On Wednesday, the House Civil and Criminal Proceedings Committee amended the bill to address many of those concerns.
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The fine caps were raised to $300 for minor traffic violations and $500 for municipal ordinance violations. To deal with those who consistently violate local ordinances, it creates a two-tiered system that allows someone who is in violation multiple times in a year to be sentenced to up to five days in jail.
It also clarifies that judges can hold someone in contempt if they repeatedly refuse to appear in court to answer for municipal ordinance violations.
Rep. Robert Cornejo, a St. Peters Republican sponsoring the measure, said at Wednesday’s hearing that he has “real heartburn at the idea of throwing someone in jail for tall grass, no matter how persistent.”
However, he ultimately voted in support of the bill, which passed in an 8-3 vote.
It now goes to the House Select Committee on the Judiciary, which Cornejo chairs. If approved there, it will go to the full House, then back to the Senate to work out differences.
Rep. Mike Colona, a St. Louis Democrat, said the possibility of jail time is needed for many scofflaws who have no trouble paying small fines for repeated violations because they see it “as just a cost of doing business.”
“There has to be a hammer there to make them do what they should do,” Colona said.
Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis Democrat, said the provision shouldn’t be a problem because cities “don’t want to throw people in jail. They want the problem properties addressed.”
An amendment was introduced by Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican, to exempt Kansas City’s municipal court from the bill. When several committee members expressed opposition to carving out any municipalities, Corlew withdrew the amendment.
The legislation is seen as a continuation of a bill aimed squarely at traffic violations passed last year in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson. Provisions of last year’s bill were recently struck down by a Cole County judge.