Officials in one Missouri city can jail citizens simply because they have not paid fines for such trivial matters as having dead vegetables, hosting a barbeque and even walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk.
The actions by politicians in Pagedale, Missouri, have prompted a federal lawsuit that could shut down what appears to be an unconstitutional code enforcement for profit.
“Pagedale treats its residents like walking, talking ATMs, making withdrawals by issuing tickets for ridiculous things that no city has a right to dictate,” said William Mauer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice.
Mauer is lead counsel in a federal civil lawsuit designed to stop the city from using fines on code violations such as having mismatched curtains.
“By targeting a set amount of revenue from fines and fees from its residents, Pagedale turns policing upside-down,” said Josh House, another attorney at the Institute.
The most outrageous behavior from the government of Pagedale, a suburb of St. Louis near Ferguson, occurred in August. That is when 38 property owners, including Valarie Whitner, received letters from the city threatening to demolish homes unless they paid fines, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Whitner owed the city $800 for a variety of code violations at her home, including having chipped paint on a drain spout and weeds growing in her vegetable garden. The violations only involved the appearance of the home and yard and did not affect health or safety.
What is truly disturbing is the rationale Pagedale Mayor Mary Louis Carver gave for the fines at a city hearing.
“We want to bring our property values up and make our neighborhood look nice,” Carver said.
Of course, she also wants to raise revenue.
The Institute’s lawsuit alleges that Pagedale officials effectively have turned code enforcement and the municipal courts into a money-raising money machine that violates the US Constitution.
“Rather than protecting and serving the public, Pagedale sets a revenue goal and then uses its code enforcement powers to achieve it,” House said.
Some of the Institute’s specific allegations against Pagedale include:
- Revenue from non-traffic fines makes up 17.68 percent of the city’s budget.
- Pagedale actually set a goal for fine revenues in its 2014-2015 city budget: $353,000.
- In 2013, Pagedale’s municipal court heard 5,781 cases. The city’s population is just 3,304.
The Institute for Justice alleges that Pagedale’s fines violate two clauses in the Constitution, including the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
“A defendant does not receive the process due him when the court system is little more than a means of managing and feeding the city’s budget, not dispensing justice,” the Institute said.
The legal group also said the fines violate the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment.
“Whether a fine is excessive depends on proportionality; that is, the amount of the penalty must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish,” the Institute said. “Applying that standard here, any fine imposed by Pagedale for something like not having drapes on your windows would be excessive. This is because harmless activities are not offenses.”
Following is a partial list of what can elicit fines:
- Having a satellite TV dish antenna in the front of the house.
- Having hedges that are over three feet high.
- Walking on the wrong side of the crosswalk.
- Walking on the public streets.
- Having weeds over seven inches high.
- Having basketball hoops and wading pools in the front yard.
- Having a barbecue in the front yard on days that are not national holidays.
- Having more than two people gathered around a barbecue.
- Having alcoholic beverages within 150 feet of a grill.
- Not having a screen on an outside door.
- Not hanging the curtains neatly on windows facing the street.
The Institute is hoping the suit filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri could become a class action lawsuit — meaning a ruling in the matter would affect all people fined by the city.