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Missouri court overturns law enacted after Ferguson unrest

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down portions of a 2015 law that imposed special requirements on Ferguson and other cities in St. Louis County following a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report on predatory revenue-generating practices in Ferguson’s police and court system.

The law came in the wake of the sometimes violent protests sparked by the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black resident who was unarmed when killed by a white Ferguson police officer in 2014.

Some protesters and legal advocates said the mostly white police force’s treatment of the predominantly black community led to longstanding distrust, heightened by the use of police to collect revenue through traffic fines and court fees.

But the court ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional because they singled out St. Louis County without any substantial justification. One stricken section, for example, limited cities within the county to getting no more than 12.5 percent of their revenue from traffic fines and court fees, as opposed to 20 percent elsewhere in Missouri.

The high court’s ruling Tuesday means that all Missouri municipalities face the same 20 percent cap, including Ferguson. The lawsuit challenging the law was filed on behalf of a dozen other municipalities in St. Louis County.

Brown was killed by then-Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation in a city street. A U.S. Justice Department investigation cleared Wilson of wrongdoing in Brown’s death, and a state grand jury declined to bring criminal charges.

But a separate Justice Department report released in March 2015 cited racial bias and profiling in Ferguson’s policing, and a profit-driven municipal court system that frequently targeted black residents. Lawmakers approved legislation two months later to address such issues for the surrounding county.

Philadelphia-based attorney David Pittinsky, who represented the 12 municipalities challenging the law, argued it unfairly singled out the area.

“The fact is, they’re not pariahs and they’re not second-class citizens,” Pittinsky said of the cities and villages he represented. “They deserve to be treated the same way all other municipalities in all the other counties are treated.”

Republican state Treasurer Eric Schmitt, who sponsored the legislation when he was a state senator, said the state’s municipal court system — especially in the St. Louis County-area — was “a safe haven for overgrown local governments that treated citizens like ATMs rather than trimming their budgets.”

But he noted that the Supreme Court upheld the heart of the law in allowing statewide limits on revenue from fines and fees. Another rejected provision required St. Louis County police agencies to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies or the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, or to contract with an accredited policing agency.

“Although I am disappointed with the decision to create a flat revenue limit applied statewide, the court’s upholding of the majority of the law marks a significant victory for efforts to eliminate these abusive taxation by citation schemes that hit the poor especially hard,” Schmitt said in a statement.

Missouri’s Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley released a statement chastising his predecessor, who handled the case, for not presenting evidence justifying the special requirements. Hawley said the remaining fine limits “continue to provide important protections for the rights of all Missourians.”

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