Residents of a predominantly Black town in Missouri filed a class action lawsuit against their city on Wednesday, alleging that its tough enforcement of the municipal Code of Ordinances has effectively turned locals into a revenue stream.
Under this extensive code, authorities in Pagedale, Missouri, can slap homeowners with tickets and fines for such “violations” as having mismatched curtains hanging in their windows, or an unpainted wooden post in the front yard.
Officials can also issue fines to residents walking on the left-hand side of a crosswalk, hosting a barbecue in their front yard, allowing their children to play on the street in front of their homes, or wearing pants “below the waist.”
The town, which lies a few miles south of Ferguson in St. Louis County and is home to just over 3,300 people, issued 2,255 non-traffic related tickets in 2014, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in May—approximately two tickets per household.
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This represents a 495 percent increase since 2010, according to a statement by the Institute for Justice, which teamed up with local residents to file the complaint in the District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
U.S. Census data shows that 93 percent of Pagedale’s residents are Black, and a quarter of its population lives below the poverty line. Already struggling to make ends meet, members of this community say that outrageous code enforcement mechanisms have brought them to their knees.
Two of the case’s leading plaintiffs, Valarie Whitner and Vincent Blount, have lived in Pagedale for decades and borne the brunt of the city’s harsh ticketing regime. Between the pair they’ve racked up over $2,800 in fines involving their home, including tickets for weeds in their vegetable garden and chipped paint on a downspout.
Whitner has been arrested in front of her own home for an “unspecified ticket,” according to case documents on the Institute for Justice website, and Blount has even been hauled into jail for failing to appear in court over fines and tickets. At one point, Whitner was forced to take out a pay-day loan with a 99 percent APR in order to pay off some of the fines.
“This is a part of life now,” Whitner said in a video about her case, holding up a sheaf of paperwork related to the loan plans. “This is the cycle; this is my life.”
Excessive fining of homeowners really took off in 2009, when the State of Missouri strengthened a piece of legislation known as the Macks Creek law, aimed at capping the amount of revenue municipalities could raise from traffic tickets at 30 percent of their general fund. But even as traffic fines dropped, cities and towns across Missouri experienced an explosion in non-traffic related citations, which are exempt from the Macks Creek amendment.
While these practices have been devastating for Pagedale residents, they have been incredibly lucrative for the city. In 2013, 17 percent of Pagedale’s total revenue of over $2 million came from fines and fees, the Institute for Justice found.
Furthermore, the city’s FY 2014-2015 budget set its “anticipated earnings” from ticketing at $353,000—effectively establishing a monetary target for code enforcement, regardless of how many actual violations occur, which legal experts say violates the Due Process Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.
As the complaint points out:
The need to generate revenue creates an unconstitutional incentive for Pagedale’s prosecutors and municipal court to convict a defendant, regardless of whether Pagedale personnel respond to this incentive. As such, the need to generate revenue creates a substantial risk of bias and prejudgment. This incentive to convict deprives the named Plaintiffs and those similarly situated of the due process of the law.
Institute for Justice Attorney Josh House told Rewire in a phone interview that the problem is not just that Pagedale budgets for fines and fees, but also the amount the city anticipates earning off of tickets.
“It is questionable whether or not the town could even exist without these fines and fees,” House said. “The Municipal Court of Pagedale actually turns a profit. Based on their budget, it looks like it costs less to run the court than the revenue they get from it—this is part of our bias claim.”
City officials have vehemently denied any link between aggressive ticketing and revenue collection from its impoverished residents.
“It’s got nothing to do with driving up revenue. And it’s got everything to do with making the properties code compliant and safe,” Pagedale City Attorney Sam Alton told the New York Times. “You have a city that’s trying to live within the law […] and make its properties safe,” he said.
But a close look at the laundry list of fines being levied against locals suggests otherwise.
An analysis of state court data by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which provided the impetus for the Institute for Justice to link with Pagedale residents in the class action suit, suggests that many of the violations have little to do with safety.
Earlier this year the newspaper reported homeowners receiving citations for such offenses as peeling paint, overgrown trees, and not taking out the recycling, while 84-year-old Mildred Bryant, also a plaintiff in the suit, once received a notice of 12 separate code violations and a warning to re-paint her entire two-story home.
Lawyers from the Institute for Justice are hopeful that a victory in the suit “will put hungry jurisdictions in America on notice that they cannot use code enforcement as a mechanism to raise revenue.”
For couples like Whitner and Blount, however, a positive verdict will have a much simpler effect: It will allow them to live in peace in their own home, without the constant fear of waking up to find an orange sticky note on the front door warning them of yet another violation.