Challenging “Policing for Profit” in Pagedale

 
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Mildred Bryant, 84, is one of the Pagedale, MO, residents facing the threat of tickets, fines, and imprisonment for minor HOA-style violations.

How much power does your local government have over you? Can it tell you that your drapes have to match or force you to put screens on your windows? Can it tell you how many people you may have at a barbeque or where on your property your grill can be? Can it make you take down a basketball hoop in your driveway?

Pagedale, MO, a small city outside of St. Louis, thinks that it can do all these things. As a result, the residents of the town spend time and money struggling to meet the demands of the code enforcement efforts of the city.

Why does the city put its residents through this? The answer is money — the city relies heavily on fines and fees to keep the town afloat. In 2013, Pagedale’s total revenue was $2,016,430. Of this amount, $356,601, or 17.68 percent, in revenue came from fines and fees — the second-largest source of income for the city. Pagedale has a little over 3,000 residents, but for fiscal year 2014-15, it budgeted to receive $353,000 in fines and fees.

As a result, the city’s municipal court has become a highly efficient machine to wring money from defendants. In 2013, the Pagedale Municipal Court heard 5,781 cases, or an average of 241 cases for each twice-monthly evening session.

Pagedale does not just issue traffic tickets, however, and that is where the city’s expansive view of its power to regulate the private homes of its residents comes into play. Missouri limits how much revenue a municipality may derive from traffic tickets, so Pagedale aggressively tickets its residents for harmless conditions and activities around their homes — things like not having drapes, having holes in their screen doors, or having a crack in their driveway. Since 2010, Pagedale has increased the number of non-traffic tickets it has levied against its residents by 495 percent. In all, in 2014, the city issued 2,255 non-traffic-related tickets, or roughly two per household.

These statistics do not convey the harm the city causes. Pagedale residents find themselves being fined for not having met the city’s unrealistic standards but cannot fix their homes because they are paying off their fines. As such, they sink deeper and deeper into debt in order to pay an ever-hungry city bureaucracy.

Pagedale’s reliance on revenue creates an incentive to ticket, convict, and fine the residents of the town. This violates the Due Process Clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits the government from having a financial interest in the outcome of an enforcement proceeding. That is why a number of residents represented by the Institute for Justice have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against Pagedale.

But perhaps more importantly, the city’s actions here raise an even more basic question: What are the limits on government power in this country? If the government can reach into someone’s private home and tell them what color their blinds have to be or whether they should have drapes on their basement windows, then people are not really free. If what we can do in our own homes is only that which the government lets us do, then very few limits on government power really exist.

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There are 12 comments.

  1. Member

    Libertarians telling the residents to just move in 3…2…1…

    • #1
    • November 16, 2015, at 12:09 PM PDT
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  2. Member

    More seriously, why have the residents not voted in different government officials who promise to end this abuse? Sounds to me like a surefire way to fix the problem.

    • #2
    • November 16, 2015, at 12:10 PM PDT
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  3. Member

    The King Prawn:Libertarians telling the residents to just move in 3…2…1…

    Conservatives insisting it is for the common good, trust the police, just follow the rules and you won’t get fined! in 3….

    • #3
    • November 16, 2015, at 1:03 PM PDT
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  4. Thatcher

    The King Prawn:More seriously, why have the residents not voted in different government officials who promise to end this abuse? Sounds to me like a surefire way to fix the problem.

    Only if the elections are not rigged. The guys that fine are also the guys that count, or at least their buddies are. Also it may be that the fines are not being applied evenly. The town fathers might be rather selective in who gets fined for what. This would be one way to run undesirables out of town. Neighborhood associations are known to use this tactic.

    • #4
    • November 16, 2015, at 1:25 PM PDT
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  5. Member

    Have they no tar and feathers in Missouri?

    • #5
    • November 16, 2015, at 5:24 PM PDT
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  6. Thatcher

    Well, better the tyranny of the mayors, than the tyranny of the state/federal government.

    It shouldn’be that hard to vote the politicians out in such a small town. Or simply move.

    I’m actually not in favor of the feds intervening. How about a suit in a local or state court instead?

    • #6
    • November 16, 2015, at 7:31 PM PDT
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  7. Member

    William R. Maurer: This violates the Due Process Clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits the government from having a financial interest in the outcome of an enforcement proceeding.

    I hope they win because this attitude about fees is contagious.

    I live in the town with the ignoble distinction of being one of the first towns in Massachusetts to charge parents for school bus transportation twenty years ago. It spread like wildfire throughout the state. And they only go up.

    And now there are other fees for sports and music and whatever else the towns can think of.

    Cities and towns have to be told to cut services, not raise taxes and fees.

    It’s going to get worse as the pensions cities and towns and states promised to pay get higher and higher. People will be confused why they are paying a lot in taxes and fees while the services or the quality of the services is reduced.

    • #7
    • November 16, 2015, at 10:27 PM PDT
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  8. Member

    Hey! I have been asking to have Bill Maurer as a contributor for going on 4 years.

    … although I’d like to read an article about campaign finance, frankly.

    • #8
    • November 16, 2015, at 11:13 PM PDT
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  9. Member

    I’m wary of due process claims, or maybe it’s “substantive due process.” The states have the police power and are not, by the Constitution, governments of inherently limited power the way the Federal Government is. And cities, I assume, have powers within a scope set out by their states. Being a rock-ribbed Federalist, I’d oppose any move to sue the city in Federal court.

    That said, this seems like a great and growing abuse of its citizens, and they need to stand up and solve the problem at the voting booth. Failing that, they could push for their state to limit these kinds of municipal fines. It’s an outrageous situation. I just don’t agree with this approach to stopping it.

    • #9
    • November 17, 2015, at 10:31 AM PDT
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  10. Member

    Tim H.:I’m wary of due process claims, or maybe it’s “substantive due process.” The states have the police power and are not, by the Constitution, governments of inherently limited power the way the Federal Government is. And cities, I assume, have powers within a scope set out by their states. Being a rock-ribbed Federalist, I’d oppose any move to sue the city in Federal court.

    That said, this seems like a great and growing abuse of its citizens, and they need to stand up and solve the problem at the voting booth. Failing that, they could push for their state to limit these kinds of municipal fines. It’s an outrageous situation. I just don’t agree with this approach to stopping it.

    It’s significantly less people than are in the local park district I opposed and often toy with getting elected to just so there’s one person on the board who always says no.

    • #10
    • November 17, 2015, at 10:38 AM PDT
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  11. Thatcher

    My question is this: Who elected the people that run the city? Why don’t the voters throw the SOBs out of office? Are these really city laws, or are they homeowners association standards being enforced by the police? Something smells, and I’m glad to see that the residents are taking this fight to court . . .

    • #11
    • November 17, 2015, at 1:48 PM PDT
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  12. Member

    This town is 94% black and old. They are probably being cowered by the town officials. This is not all that unusual in a predominant black community.

    • #12
    • November 17, 2015, at 2:14 PM PDT
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