'There's no punishment for not showing up to court': How Missouri defendants get off easy

Missouri State Treasurer Eric Schmitt said there is a "breakdown of trust" between people, the government and the court system.
Missouri State Treasurer Eric Schmitt said there is a "breakdown of trust" between people, the government and the court system. File photo

A recent Friday morning in the courtroom of presiding Independence Municipal Judge Garry Helm demonstrates as conclusively as anything why Missouri's sweeping 2015 judicial reforms went too far.

On the 10 a.m. docket that day were 368 cases. In the audience were — count 'em — seven defendants.

Helm had predicted the paltry turnout even before he walked into court that morning. No-shows dominate life in municipal courts these days. New state laws, enacted as a result of the Ferguson uprising, stipulate that Helm can't fine a defendant for missing court for minor traffic violations such as driving without a license. He can't get them tossed in jail. And he can't suspend their licenses.

So the word is out: There's no reason to show up for court. And drivers who lack licenses or insurance continue to roam the streets.

"It’s just really sad," Helm said. "They’ve taken the teeth out of municipal courts.”

"They" is the Missouri General Assembly, which meant well when it passed a series of laws that then-Gov. Jay Nixon called the most comprehensive municipal court reform bill in state history. They acted after a Justice Department investigation documented enormous problems in east Missouri towns like Ferguson, which essentially ticketed African Americans as a way to to generate enough revenue to operate their cities.

The report concluded that officials in those municipalities viewed African Americans "less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue." The oppressive brand of law enforcement in those towns amounted to an ongoing abuse of power.

Then-state Sen. Eric Schmitt, who's now the state treasurer and was the bill's primary sponsor, said at the time the legislation was intended to address a "breakdown of trust" between people, the government and the court system. The old laws had treated citizens like ATMs. "Healing that," he said, "is something worth fighting for."

He was right. That those issues needed to be addressed was obvious. The problem? Lawmakers lumped every city in the state in with the bad actors in the St. Louis suburbs. The result was a vast overreach that created problems where none had existed before, which is exactly what Kansas City Mayor Sly James predicted before Nixon signed one of the bills.

Said state Rep. DaRon McGee, a Kansas City Democrat, “We’re making Ferguson's problems Kansas City’s problems."

Among the changes was a lowering of maximum fines to $225 from what used to be $500. The result? Combined with a ban on late fees and warrant fees, revenue flowing into city coffers has dropped dramatically. Add to that some other expenses associated with the news laws, which included software and personnel requirements, and the result has been the shuttering of small municipal courts and police departments all over western Missouri.

They simply couldn't afford to remain open.

Among the affected towns are Holt, Platte City, Mosby, Lake Tapawingo, Randolph, Lake Lafayette, Avondale and Napoleon. Cases that would have been handled in those courtrooms are now winding up in associate circuit courts crowding those dockets to overflowing.

The change has undermined enforcement in another key area, too: neighborhood nuisances often involving abandoned homes. The Kansas City housing judge now says he no longer has the tools to stop offenders.

The state Senate considered but did not pass a bill this year aimed at undoing some of the reforms. Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican, said his aim was to start a conversation about solutions. One of Dixon's ideas: If a citizen fails to show up for a court date, a judge could order community service, issue a civil fine or put a hold on a driver's license.

He told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he'd heard from mayors across the state that the 2015 law had hurt their cities.

"It has removed the ability for municipalities to enforce their ordinances," he said. "We need a different solution."

But Schmitt stands by the reforms as the best way to stop cities from abusing citizens via multiple tickets. The message to cities, he said, is: "You need to find another way to generate revenue."

Complaints about the new rules amount to sour grapes "from cities who don't like the loss of revenue."

Judge Helm likes the idea of imposing penalties for missing court. Too many defendants "just blow us off," he said. "There's no punishment for not showing up to court."

To him, public safety is being eroded. "My motto is if you don’t want to pay the fine, don’t do the crime."

In court that Friday morning, Helm gave one man until November to finish paying a fine that was already two years past due. "I can pay it in a week," the man told Helm.

The judge thumbed through case envelopes that document defendant after defendant with outstanding fines. One example: Larry Bradley of Independence has been arrested six times for failing to pay a years-old fine for driving with no insurance. He was never put in jail and once wrote a bad check to pay his $187 fine.

"We lost money on that deal," Helm said.

Another defendant who didn't show that Friday was Shawanda Brown, who has been arrested four times for a $450 ticket from 2015 for driving with no insurance and driving with a suspended license. She still hasn't paid.

"These people just continue to drive," Helm said, "except they don't drive to court."

Missouri needs to revisit its 2015 reforms with the goal of restoring some authority to its municipal courts. As of now, they've been effectively defanged.