STL Today: St. Louis County accused of charging illegal court costs

Messenger: St. Louis County, three municipalities, accused of charging illegal court costs

  • Jun 19, 2019

John Cibulka was hanging out watching his son’s baseball practice when a thought in the back of his head started nagging at him.

“I got the feeling that I was supposed to be somewhere else,” says the 59-year-old south St. Louis County resident.

Indeed, he was. In court.

It was 2013, and Cibulka was fighting a ticket he got the year before for running a red light. He made his first court date, pleaded not guilty, and a new court date was set in St. Louis County Municipal Court.

When he realized his mistake, Cibulka called his lawyer, who then negotiated a plea deal.

Cibulka pleaded guilty to a parking violation and paid a fine. The fine was $125. Court costs of $137.50 were added on. He wasn’t happy about the expense, but threatened with larger fines, possible imprisonment and points against his license, Cibulka felt he had little choice but to plead guilty.

“It’s hard to fight city hall,” Cibulka says.

Several years later, that’s what he is doing.

One of the reasons that his court costs were so high is that Cibulka was charged a $75 “warrant fee” for the day that he missed court.

Now, Cibulka wants his money back.

He is one of several people who have filed lawsuits against St. Louis County, and three municipalities in the county, seeking refunds for court costs that were charged but are not allowed by statute.

There are 14 pages of dozens upon dozens of allowable court costs published every year by the Missouri Supreme Court. A warrant fee is not among them.

Neither is a “special deterrent fee.” That’s what Alec Brimmer was charged when he pleaded guilty to a municipal charge of littering in the city of Overland in 2016.

Keep in mind, Brimmer didn’t litter.

His roommate had borrowed his car and got pulled over for an alleged traffic violation. The roommate had unpaid tickets and was going to be hauled off to jail. Brimmer went to retrieve his car. Instead, he was cuffed and put in the back of a police car. Brimmer, whose only run-ins with police have been over traffic violations, was charged with resisting arrest and interfering with police.

Now 27 and living in Arizona, the young information technology worker told me he pleaded guilty to littering because he didn’t want anything on his record.

The fine was $100.

The special deterrent fee was twice that.

This is what happens in courts all over the country. Tax-strapped cities and counties, aided by state lawmakers who are allergic to tax increases, turn to the courts as a fundraising tool. It is part of what was exposed five years ago when Ferguson became a hashtag, and led to the passage of a bill to limit the amount of money cities could collect from traffic fines.

It is a problem increasingly on the minds of the Missouri Supreme Court, which earlier this year ruled that counties can’t put people in jail for an inability to pay “board bills” charged for previous stays behind bars. Several times over the past few years, Missouri’s higher courts have overturned sentences of people who were, in effect, sent to jail over an inability to pay ever-increasing court costs.

“I think it’s deplorable,” Brimmer says of the practice of charging court costs that aren’t approved by statute. “I was young. I was between jobs. It really put me in a difficult place.”

Chesterfield attorney Rob Schultz represents both Brimmer and Cibulka. He is suing the cities of Overland, Maryland Heights and Crestwood over the practice of charging deterrent fees. He’s suing St. Louis County over the warrant fee charged to Cibulka and others.

“None of these are allowable court costs,” Schultz says. “We need to stop them from doing it. Most of the people paying these fines can’t afford it.”

The lawsuits are having an effect already. Schultz, a longtime municipal prosecutor for the city of Bridgeton, says that each of the entities he’s sued has stopped charging the specific court costs that haven’t been approved by the Missouri Supreme Court.

An attorney for St. Louis County declined to comment.

“We are involved in active litigation on this matter. Therefore it is not appropriate to comment,” said acting county counselor Micki Wochner.

The various entities accused of charging illegal court costs have also refused to tell Schultz how much money the municipal courts have collected by charging such fines over the years.

“There’s a reason they’re not telling me,” he says. Schultz is seeking class-action status in the lawsuits to get money returned to every similar defendant who has paid court costs not allowed by law.

Getting Cibulka his $75 or Brimmer his $200 returned won’t make much of a dent into the entities charging illegal fees. But if thousands of people like them also get refunds?

That will get the attention of cities and counties using their courts as a revenue generator. You might even call it a deterrent fee.

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