Defendants “blowing off” court after 2015 legislation overhauled municipal court rules
Kansas City, MO – Municipal Court reforms enacted in 2015 are causing havoc for courts in Missouri – with defendants now blowing off court dates without the deterrent necessary to enforce municipal ordinances.
The Kansas City Star’s editorial board reported on the issue…
(excerpt) – Kansas City Star
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.”