Municipal courts are on the move across Missouri – and now in two cities in Jefferson County.
Last month the De Soto City Council voted 5-0 to transfer its municipal court to the Associate Circuit Court in Hillsboro, in Missouri’s 23rd judicial circuit. Festus made the same move back in June, following a trend that has seen 91 towns decide to offload their municipal courts to state responsibility, according to the Office of State Courts Administrator.
Both cities’ transfers are expected to be completed by Jan. 1, 2020.
Municipal courts in the state have undergone major changes in the wake of Senate Bill 5, a sweeping court reform law enacted in 2015. Senate Bill 5 imposed new restrictions on how much municipal courts could charge violators in fines and penalties and prohibited those courts from sentencing violators to confinement for failure to pay a fine.
The legislation also reduced the amount of municipal court revenue cities can bring in to 20 percent of its annual budget. Previously, the limit was 30 percent.
Senate Bill 5 also imposed new administrative requirements on municipal courts that have made them more costly to operate.
“It’s not that we necessarily want to move the municipal court, but if you’re trying to be financially responsible, it’s really the only move to make, in our opinion,” said De Soto City Manager Todd Melkus after the council’s move. He said the city’s revenues from fines, penalties and court costs have declined “drastically” since 2015.
“In the last three or four years, it’s been trending down so significantly, it’s opened everybody’s eyes,” Melkus said.
De Soto deputy city clerk Crystal Barton, who is serving as interim court clerk after the departure of Abby Miller, said 2019 court revenue was $40,807.69 on 674 cases, as of Monday. The court brought in $83,973.37 on 660 cases last year.
De Soto Municipal Judge Brian Hammon of the Hammon Law Firm in Hillsboro will continue to preside over the court through the end of 2019. He is paid $18,000 per year; the court is in session twice a month. De Soto’s city attorney and municipal court prosecutor, Mark Bishop of the Wegmann Law Firm in Hillsboro, will continue to prosecute cases after the court transfer. The city pays him $135 per hour.
Bishop also said the court transfer makes financial sense for the city through a significant reduction in expenses.
“Practically speaking, it just means that (rather) than the city of De Soto having to keep up with the updates for the (court) software, the computer programs and the requirements for the Supreme Court – the management of the court – we don’t have any of those expenses or responsibilities,” Bishop said. “Instead, everything gets filed directly to the Associate Circuit Court and it therefore is handled by an associate circuit judge.”
The city will continue to collect fines and penalties paid by violators, while the Associate Circuit Court will receive the court costs.
Law reduced fines
Some cities face a financial pinch because Senate Bill 5 reduced the maximum fine they could impose on violators, Bishop said.
“(The state) adopted a definition of ‘minor traffic violation,’ which meant that you could not, under any circumstances, issue a sentence of (a) fine and court costs in excess of $225, for what are considered minor traffic violations,” he said. “Before, you usually wouldn’t do over $225, but you’d have up to $500. So that was a big change; it just dropped everything down. It cut more than half the range of punishment as far as assessment of fines.”
But finances were not the only motivation for the move, Bishop explained.
Senate Bill 5, he noted, stripped away a municipal court’s ability to suspend the driver’s license for defendants who fail to appear in court. As a result, he said, at least half of the cases he handles are no-shows, mirroring the experience other cities are reporting.
“That was a big change that really hurt our ability to have people show up to court and answer whether they are guilty or not,” he said. Senate Bill 5 introduced “a succession of changes that have come down that make it more cumbersome and expensive for us, especially a smaller municipality, to manage its own municipal court.”
Bishop also noted that while Senate Bill 5 sought to end alleged abusive practices by some municipal courts and lighten the burden on defendants, the reforms have some unintended consequences.
“The bottom line for me is that municipal courts are really set up in large part to benefit defendants,” Bishop said. “The night court is inconvenient for the judge and the prosecutor and the court clerk, but the defendants don’t have to take off work if they work a regular first shift. All that’s going to change when it goes to the Associate Circuit Court because that’s going to be during normal business hours.”
Defendants will lose a measure of privacy as well.
“The court automation, having the record on CaseNet (the state’s online judicial records system), means that all those cases are easily searchable by employers or nosy neighbors. (Before), if it was a minor offense in the city of De Soto it was a public record, but you’d have to know about it to ask for the record, and now it’s going to be on CaseNet for all the world to know and see.”
Festus plagued by no-shows
Festus City Administrator Greg Camp said his city’s municipal court revenue has plummeted from roughly $500,000 in 2014, before Senate Bill 5, to half that this year, as reflected in the city’s budget. But he added that money isn’t the issue so much as the failure of most defendants to show up for court.
“I could not care less about the revenue,” Camp said. “It’s the compliance. You’ve got to get people to comply. The Circuit Court can make them comply.”
Other cities standing pat
Other cities in Jefferson County aren’t moving their courts, at least for now.
“We have not had any discussions; we are not considering it,” Arnold City Administrator Bryan Richison said. “We’re still happy with our court and the way it’s operating. At least right now, it continues to make more sense for us to continue to operate it instead of transferring it to the county.”
Municipal court revenue “always fluctuates a little. But it’s held pretty steady,” Richison said. “I know other places have seen drastic decreases, but we’ve never looked at (the) court as a revenue source. Our court revenue was always under 10 percent of our general fund revenue, even before Senate Bill 5 set (the limit) at 20 (percent). It’s just never been an issue for us, never been a revenue driver.”
Richison’s counterpart in Herculaneum, Jim Kasten, said city leaders “have discussed it briefly but are not moving in that direction as of now.” Hillsboro’s city administrator, Jesse Wallis, said the municipal court in the county seat has seen a slight increase in revenue this year and is staying put.
In Crystal City, administrator Jason Eisenbeis said his town took a hard look at moving its court.
“Crystal City along with several other cities throughout the county have met on several occasions over the past year to discuss moving our municipal court operations to the county,” Eisenbeis said. “(Our) staff have attended numerous conferences, had several phone conversations with a few cities throughout the state who have moved their municipal court and some who have decided to keep their court.
“We have a new (municipal) judge (former Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Forrest Wegge), who is doing a fantastic job, and a dedicated court staff. After much thought and discussion, we have decided to keep our municipal court.”
Pevely City Administrator Nathan Schauf said he had heard no discussion among city officials about moving their court, until Ward 1 Alderman Steve Markus raised the issue during aldermanic reports at the city’s Board of Alderman meeting July 15. No action was taken at that meeting.
Byrnes Mill officials have not talked about moving their court either, City Administrator Debbie LaVenture said. She added, however, that court revenue, accounting for 12 or 13 percent of the city’s budgeted income, has gone down over the past few years.
“Our income is less, so we have lowered our budget as a result,” she said.