Maybe John Boeh isn’t the kind of guy you find riding a motorcycle down Missouri’s country roads. But the St. Joseph municipal judge has his own reason to feel deflated after Gov. Mike Parson vetoed a bill that would have repealed the state’s helmet law for motorcycle riders.
A provision in the bill would have allowed the state to suspend the driver’s licenses of motorists who refuse to pay penalties imposed for minor traffic violations like speeding and running a red light. Without the threat of a possible license suspension, some drivers are refusing to pay traffic fines.
“There’s a lot of irresponsibility,” Boeh said. “You shouldn’t be able to profit for doing the wrong thing, for not taking responsibility for the moving violation.”
The city of St. Joseph estimates that 17 percent of police-related traffic citations remain unpaid, amounting to $168,000 in unpaid fines last year. It’s not from a lack of enforcement. The St. Joseph Police Department issued 16,168 traffic summonses in 2018, a 5 percent increase from the previous year.
“The whole purpose of traffic enforcement is to change behavior,” said Sgt. Chris McBane of the St. Joseph Police Department. “The purpose of a summons to court is not to punish you, but to modify your behavior.”
All too often, motorists are learning a lesson, but it’s not the importance of safe driving. The state used to suspend a driver’s license if a motorist failed to pay fines on minor traffic violations, but that threat was removed in a 2015 law designed to curb municipal court overreach in the wake of civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
As Boeh sees it, the city has little leverage, especially if an out-of-town motorist is ticketed. The city will issue a warrant if the fine is unpaid, but the motorist not only keeps the license, but no points are assessed against it because the case remains unresolved.
“Of course, the city of St. Joseph is not going to come down and pick you up for speeding,” Boeh said. “They don’t have the resources. So you think it over and say, ‘Well, I’m going to profit by not showing up.’ There’s no consequences.”
The seeds of this debate were planted in 2014, when massive street protests erupted after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. A subsequent investigation found that Ferguson relied heavily on fines and fees as a primary source of revenue, putting financial pressure on low-income residents.
The state responded with a 2015 law that sought to prevent cities from using municipal courts to generate revenue, including the decision to no longer suspend licenses for minor traffic violations.
“They did a lot of good things,” Boeh said. “One of the provisions they had was nobody could sit in jail for more than two days for a municipal violation. There were places where someone had a plate ticket and they sat in jail for three weeks or a month because they only had court once a month.”
Boeh is no stranger to the tension between city enforcement and a low-income population that struggles to pay fines. The City Council has sought to increase fines for code violations while the state Supreme Court issues mandates for judges to consider alternatives when a person is unable to pay.
“So, I can levy big fines and I don’t have a problem doing that,” he said. “Or I can waive fines and forgive fines. That’s not hard to do, either. But I can’t do both at the same time.”
Across the country, some advocates for low-income communities are beginning to question the fairness of suspending licenses for failure to pay traffic fines. Some believe the loss of driving privileges makes it harder to keep a job.
“A state suspends the license even though a person cannot afford to pay, which then makes the person less likely to pay once he or she cannot drive legally to work,” according to a report from the Legal Aid Justice Center of Virginia.
But Boeh said there’s no excuse for not showing up in court, especially since St. Joseph’s Municipal Court has a history of providing options for low-income residents. Allowing some people to walk away from their tickets, with no immediate impact on points or a license suspension, seemed unfair to those who do pay the fines, he said.
“That would make me very angry,” Boeh said.
The state will suspend or revoke license for more serious offenses, like driving while intoxicated. In Buchanan County, 2,462 drivers have a suspended or revoked license.