Attorney General sues small Missouri town for ‘taxation’ by traffic citation

(The Center Square) – Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt on Friday filed a lawsuit against the city of Moscow Mills for violating state laws prohibiting quotas for traffic tickets.

“Missourians should not be treated as cash cows to fill municipal coffers,” Schmitt said in a statement announcing the suit. “When I was in the State Senate, I led efforts to pass Senate Bill 5 to ensure that citizens are not being treated as ATMs and to end the practice of taxation by citation. Now, as Missouri’s Attorney General, I’m trusted with enforcing those laws. Requiring the brave men and women of law enforcement to focus on driving municipal revenue rather than public safety is against the law.

The 10-page suit, filed in the 45th Judicial Circuit Court in Lincoln County, asks for a preliminary and permanent injunction prohibiting Moscow Mills from enforcing a traffic ticket quota. The town of 2,500 is about 3.1 square miles. The four-lane U.S. Highway 61 runs through the town, about 50 miles northwest of St. Louis.

2016 Missouri law prohibits ordering or suggesting to an employee of a political subdivision to issue a certain number of traffic citations on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly or other basis. It also prohibits any other quota or requirement for the employee to increase the number of traffic citations they are currently issuing. The offense is a class A misdemeanor. The law was part of a legislative effort to address municipal laws and policing after the Ferguson protests in 2014.

The lawsuit states the City of Moscow Mills and its police department created a “traffic enforcement officer” in 2013. The petition states it was created as a volunteer position and later became a part-time position “under the assumption it would pay for its own salary with ticket citation revenue.”

Chief Terry Foster, in his 14th year with the Moscow Mills Police Department, gave instructions to the traffic enforcement officer to write at least 10 citations per day and the remaining officers to write a minimum of five tickets per month, according to the suit. It also stated Foster instructed the traffic enforcement officer to write 160 citations per month, excluding December and January, to annually secure $160,000 in court citation revenue.

The Moscow Mills 2021 budget showed a budget of $160,000 in court fine revenue, 14% of the city’s total revenue. The budget document also showed court fine revenues of $124,306.90 in 2018 and $154,507.50 in 2019, about 13% of the city’s total revenue. Court fine revenue was $105,324 during the first 10 months of 2020, about 10% of its revenue. The Moscow Mills website names seven officers currently on its police force. 

The suit claims Foster:

  • told employees they were behind on their citation count and needed to issue more citations;
  • discouraged the practice of giving warnings for traffic violations and said, “warnings don’t help us;”
  • informed officers that failing to produce sufficient citation revenue would result in layoffs and lost jobs;
  • reprimanded and threatened to terminate officers for failing to produce more traffic citations.

The petition claims an officer notified Foster of the Missouri laws prohibiting quotas of traffic tickets and the department’s policy manual referenced the laws.

Foster pressured senior officers to coach newer officers to issue a certain number of traffic citations “to provide him with potential legal defenses if his quota scheme were ever to be exposed because he believes Missouri law precludes him from encouraging such action himself,” according to the suit. Foster allegedly discussed the implications of violating the traffic ticket quota law with city leaders and was reassured there would be no employment repercussions for him if he was found guilty of violating the statutes.

The suit alleges an officer approached Moscow Mills Mayor Patrick Flannigan to discuss concerns about the ticket quota. The petition states Foster learned the officer met with Flannigan, the chief said, “one way or another, [this officer] is [explicative] gone.”

Two weeks later, the petition states Foster terminated the officer’s employment.

The Moscow Mills’ Facebook page stated Foster has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in criminal justice administration from Lindenwood University. He is first vice president of the Missouri Police Chief’s Association.

In addition to requesting preliminary relief and a permanent end to the city’s practice in the matter, the suit requests court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees incurred and additional relief as this court deems just and proper.

Phone and email messages to Foster and Flannigan on Friday weren’t immediately returned.

“We cannot reach our full potential without the support and trust of our community,” Foster wrote in a letter on the department’s webpage. “It is only with that support that we are able to provide the best possible service given the resources available while being good stewards of the public funds that enable us to exist.”

By Joe Mueller | The Center Square

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