Ferguson: A Financial Ethics Explanation

Ferguson website


By: Sarah Myers

Macks Creek Law and its Exploitative Effects in Revenue Generation by Police and Courts

Ferguson is a city in St. Louis County, Missouri, USA. The city is now infamous as the place where racial unrest and protests began and then spread around the country after Michael Brown, an 18 year old African American, was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a Caucasian policeman. This story investigates how Macks Creek Law contributed to events in Ferguson.

Missouri created Macks Creek Law to limit the amount of revenue municipalities can collect from traffic violations. Police officers in the town of Macks Creek, Missouri, which no longer exists, were notorious for abusing traffic ticketing as a sure source of income for the city. Legislators designed Macks Creek Law in 1995 to address this issue. The law puts a cap on the amount of revenue a city may receive from traffic and speeding tickets. A revision in 2013 makes the law even stricter, bringing the revenue limit down to 30%.

But instead of eliminating unjust targeting in St. Louis municipalities, the cities face even more concentrated instances of unmerited police ticketing, especially towards African Americans and the impoverished because police departments strongly enforced minor laws to make up for the loss of revenue. For example, citizens of municipalities were ticketed for grass left uncut, pants worn too low, toys and barbeque pits in the front yard among other ordinances, piling on fines for those who were unable to quickly fix such issues or pay their tickets. This sort of police behavior further increased community distrust of the authorities.

This article examines the actions municipal courts and police force have taken to make up for the loss of revenue as a result of Macks Creek Law, with Ferguson being a prime example where such police remedial action occurred. Corrective justice and original police duties are analyzed concluding there is evidence of exploitation along racial and poverty lines in the city of St. Louis. Evidence reveals Macks Creek Law by itself is not an effective strategy in preventing police targeting of citizens for revenue but instead escalates exploitative practices and profiling.

Federal, State, and Local Missouri and St. Louis Governments

The main types of government in the United States are the federal, state, county, and city and municipal. Each has three branches: the executive, judicial, and legislative. For the state, the executive branch is led by an elected governor. The legislative branch has purview over budget and tax concerns, while the judicial branch oversees court cases. These branches are to remain separate at each level to ensure a balance of powers (“State and Local Government”).

Macks Creek Law operates at state level and is enforced at municipality level. The state has its own constitution, where the ambiguities of Macks Creek Law led to a lawsuit explained in the section below. Municipalities may range in size from several hundred to several million people and are the lowest level of political subdivision for the purposes of this article.

In St. Louis, things are a bit different. St. Louis City has a separate political system from the St. Louis County system. This is an anomaly, for most major cities in the United States the major city is included in the county structure (“The 1876 St. Louis City/County split…”).

What is and Where did Macks Creek Law Originate?

Known as Macks Creek Law or House Bill 103, the law was inspired by a town called Macks Creek. The town, which no longer exists, is now remembered as a speed trap and ticketing zone. The state of Missouri enacted the law in 1995 with the intention of preventing police officers from abusing the use of traffic tickets for revenue generation. It capped the revenue source from traffic tickets at 45%. A Missouri senator then revised the law for the cap to decrease to 35% in 2009 to enforce it in Foristell, a municipality near St. Louis. After the revisions made to it in August 2013, any amount more than 30% of the revenue from traffic tickets is to be given to education funding for the state (Mann). The bill defines traffic ticketing as all traffic violations and not merely speeding tickets. House Bill 103 calls for accountability for modified charges as well as an accounting of their ticket and court costs and annual financial statements. A new revision was made in the spring of 2015 to lower the cap to 12.5% for St. Louis County while the rest of the state is capped at 20% (Mann).

Perspectives on Macks Creek Law

Supporters of Macks Creek Law argue it helps ease tensions between citizens and police. These supporters believe police will be prevented from unjustly stopping drivers for traffic violations and reduce the disproportionately large amount of revenues generated from those supposed violations. Excessive ticketing and punishments for not meeting due dates on fines led to increasing mistrust between the citizens of the municipalities and the police force and court system (Young). Macks Creek is seen as the solution to the problem.

Municipalities in Missouri met the 2013 revisions to the bill with a significant amount of backlash. After a month of the revisions the Missouri Municipal League, which seeks to strengthen cooperation at local government level, took its concerns to court. First, according to the League’s argument, the vagueness of the bill was unconstitutional. The bill gives little direction on how the municipalities are to carry out this law. In the revisions to the law minimal guidance is given to what the consequences will be for not enforcing the law (Heinz). Second, the Missouri Municipal League also claimed the bill violated the Missouri Constitution by expressing more than one subject in its title (Mann & Deere). Under Missouri Constitution, no bill may deal with more than one subject in its title line. Third, the League stated the House Bill violated the idea of the separation between the legislative and the executive and judicial branches of the government (Heinz). The details of these issues were worked between the League and the State of Missouri when the former filed suit. The circuit court found the bill did not violate any constitutional amendments and rejected the appeals made by the League (Heinz).

Ambiguities of Macks Creek Law

House Bill 103 also unclearly defines terms like “annual general operation revenue”. Macks Creek Law does not explicitly state or even suggest any way to actually enforce the law. This is left entirely up to the director of revenue of the city (Heinz). This leaves many things up to the leaders of the municipal cities, including how to distinguish between traffic fines and non-traffic fines. The results have fallen short of the expectations, as Macks Creek Law a study conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum concludes the law is poorly enforced. The law has been abused as data show that more than five county areas violated the law in the year of 2013, with 26 municipalities surpassing the cap. The Missouri House and Senate were considering separate bills to strengthen Macks Creek law, including significantly reducing the current 30% cap on court revenue (Police Executive Research Forum).

Police and Courts Deliver Money for City Revenue

There are more than 90 municipalities in the St. Louis City and St. Louis County areas. These municipalities receive their funding in several ways, but predominantly: sales tax, property tax, utility tax, motor fuel and licenses, user fees, and cigarette tax (St. Louis County Division of Fiscal Management).

In 2013, a nonprofit organization that fosters communication through studies on economic influences in St. Louis, Better Together, found that municipal courts bring in revenue that is more than required (Better Together). The police bring in a large amount for the courts to include for the revenue contributions to the city. St. Louis County has revenues of 2 million (St. Louis County Division of Fiscal Management) with fines and fees contributing to 2% of revenues. Ferguson by comparison collects approximately 23% of its budget from court fines and fees as projected for the 2015 fiscal year (United States Department of Justice).

The city of Ferguson collects over $2 million from tickets and stops. Ferguson is an example of excessive policing to in order to collect revenue. Questions about the motivations of the police and courts for the municipalities in St. Louis County arise as one investigates the patterns and outcomes of the high ticketing and revenue contribution.

The Law Raises Ethical Questions

Ethical question arise when examining police duties and municipal court revenue generation. In place of traffic tickets, police turn to issuing tickets for violations that include grass being left to grow too high, pants that are worn too low, toys and barbeque pits left out in front yards, and other ordinance violations that were much less enforced and recognized before the enactment of Macks Creek Law (Mann). The city of Pagedale, a municipality in St. Louis County, has seen a 164% increase in such types of tickets since 2010 (Mann). The amount brought in from non-traffic tickets has risen since the enactment of Macks Creek Law (Mann). These tickets issued by police officers can count for general revenue. Many people in the municipalities and towns of St. Louis question the intentions of the police department and their actions in generating revenue for their towns. Citizens as well as some politicians conclude the methods used to increase revenues are unethical. The Washington Post highlights the complexity of the ticketing situation with people in poverty (Balko). Those with less money do not fully understand the workings of the law in regards to ticketing and fines. The court may fine those who are unable to quickly fix the subject of the original ticket. A court appearance is then required, to which some may not be able to attend because they have second jobs or other responsibilities. The court then additionally fines those unable to appear or pay the fine.

In Missouri municipalities a lawyer may act as a defendant in one city while also switching to a prosecutor or a judge in another city (Mann and Kohler and Deere). This results in a possible conflict of interest. Judges and lawyers may work together to determine a verdict for a defendant and whether or not to build on the charges or to let them appeal. At state and federal levels, this determination is not allowed. It is questionable whether the judicial and legislative branches of government are completely separate in cases like this. Ethical concerns emerge when judges and lawyers who work together in one case create “deals” and promises that are to predetermine the outcome of other cases when the roles are switched (Mann and Kohler and Deere).

With records being public after the shooting of Michael Brown, Ferguson is an example for further inquiry into the matter. Investigations from the United States Department of Justice reveal the intentions behind the Ferguson police department. The Justice Department released a report in March 2015 concluding that indeed, the police department of Ferguson had clear goals of generating revenue and that it violated the trust of blacks and the impoverished in order to do achieve these monetary goals. In email exchanges, the city manager congratulates the police on the results of high ticketing practices. Competition among police officers is apparent as each officer attempts to go beyond his colleague’s successes in ticketing. Racial profiling is evident in the police department, with police officers showing unethical behavior while also violating the rights of African Americans by unconstitutionally stopping and holding people without a definite legal reason and blatantly verbally disrespecting them while doing so (United States Justice Department). Records from external non-profits such as Better Together provide studies that reveal the mistrust between courts and citizens that stretch beyond Ferguson and into St. Louis County as a whole. The study reports African American communities as well as the impoverished have lost trust in municipal courts (Better Together). It seems the former are more frequently stopped with African American drivers 66% more likely to be stopped than Caucasian drivers. Given the evidence of the goals of Ferguson police to generate revenue, as well as the St. Louis County statistics on the matter, it can be concluded the Macks Creek law does not effectively change the unethical behavior of the police force. Indeed, the law does not effectively prevent unfair, excessive ticketing and unequal profiling but instead expands unethical behavior in different or existing cases of racism and minority targeting.

Anomalous Revenue Generation and Unjust Ticketing

St. Louis County brings in 34% of all municipal fines and fees for the whole state despite representing only 11% of Missouri’s entire population (Better Together). The cities within St. Louis County are responsible for 46% of all fees and fines for the whole state despite housing only 22% of Missouri citizens. Multiple studies conclude the municipal courts are used as revenue generation machines in St. Louis County. African Americans are reportedly stopped more often than whites; this is in a population where St. Louis County as a whole consists of only 24% African Americans and 11% of all residents are below the poverty line. Fines and fees are utilized to exploit the impoverished citizens using “hidden taxes” (Better Together). Jail time is among the methods of punishment for those who cannot pay their fines. According to the Police Executive Research Forum, the “PERF has never before encountered what we have seen in parts of St. Louis County”.

Notably, police duties listed in the Ferguson Code of Ordinances mention no expected duty to generate revenue for the city (Ferguson, Missouri). The police officer’s role is to protect citizens from harm and enforce the law. It does not specifically state whether the intentions behind enforcing the law should be for revenue generating purposes or simply for the pure good of seeking justice in the community. The police should not be in the business of seeking revenue for the city. Additionally it is a conflict of interest for the police to be agents of revenue generation. Finally, the methods used to gain money for the city, targeting vulnerable and weak groups, also is unethical.

Organizing Municipalities

Some propose that given the large number of the municipalities, merging them would help improve the relationship between the olice force and the citizens. Compared to the city, municipalities like Ferguson have elected officers that do not represent the race or income of the general population (Smith). Suggestions include creating regional training centers for police so police forces around the County are not so “fragmented” (Police Executive Research Forum). To replace the goal of revenue generation, there should be a standard accepted by the whole region (Police Executive Research Forum). The same report also calls for actually strengthening Macks Creek Law to improve enforcement and punishment. It is in the interest of the police to advocate for strengthening Macks Creek Law so there is stricter punishment for unjust acts such as excessive ticketing.

A study from Sweden suggests methods in which organizing municipalities be set in place. The author warns against looking at organizing municipalities from a structural standpoint. In doing so, one may “miss historical and contextual circumstances and their impact on life in organizations” (Jonsson). This is applicable to municipalities in St. Louis as well. In the city of St. Louis, looking at a law for solutions to issues that are sociological and historical are not sound methods for solving the racial problem.

Municipal court powers and police duties as stated in the Ferguson Municipal Code of Ordinances do not explicitly state the power of courts is to collect revenue (Ferguson, Missouri). In any case, the goal of generating revenue conflicts with the idea of protecting citizens. A city cannot function properly if there is no trust between its citizens and government and ethics is a key consideration when evaluating the long term good of enforcing a law like Macks Creek. To strive for justice as a primary goal, a deeper evaluation and a multidisciplinary solution should be considered.

Macks Creek Law and Ferguson: An Act of Corrective Justice?

Corrective justice aims to restore justice after a wrongful or unjust act (Coleman). This concept applies to Macks Creek Law, for law makers attempted to “eliminate, rectify, or annul wrongful losses” (Coleman). The wrongful loss in this case is unjust and excessive ticketing of citizens for solely for the purpose of revenue generation. The law was put in place to stop undesirable and unjust police and court behavior towards vulnerable population segments. The intention is to seek to recover the trust of citizens.

Yet, evidence suggests the law does not address police behavior by finding alternate ways to collect revenue. Macks Creek Law, therefore, makes little progress in preventing police injustice. Police instead turn to other methods to gather revenue from its very own citizens by again, and more so targeting the financially and racially disadvantaged. Macks Creek Law is an ineffective way to correct the acts of injustice the police have set in the state of Missouri and St. Louis. The questions are: can the unethical behavior of the police in regards to tickets be stopped, and if it cannot be, should the police department have any role in generating revenue? While Macks Creek Law in itself has good intentions, it alone cannot fix the problems within St. Louis.

Macks Creek Law can be actually be seen as a way to further increase the power inequality in St. Louis. Originally seeking to be an act of corrective justice, the makers of the law instead miss the mark at finding solutions to much deeper issues. The law simply shifts the injustice to other areas. Preventing police from unfairly targeting speeders with tickets in one place may cause further civil disruption in another, such as St. Louis County. Macks Creek Law creates a superficial solution, whereas a better solution may be instead to address the imbalance of power in the financial, racial, and government sectors of the community.




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