Is This Missouri Town Paying Bills with ‘Shakedown Money’ from Nonsensical Code Violations?

Class action lawsuit by The Institute for Justice challenges policing for profit.

There you are, charcoal hot and ready to go, your grill loaded down with burgers and hot dogs for your friends, when a government bureaucrat with a clipboard walks up your driveway and starts scribbling away. When he’s done, he hands you some paper and tells you that you have 30 days to make the required changes listed.

Changes like fixing the hole in your window screen and making sure the curtains inside the windows match.  Here’s your citation for barbecuing in your front yard… ooops, is that a beer in your hand?  Another citation. Oh, and there’s a fine for all these offenses too.

This is what the citizens of Pagedale, Missouri have to deal with every day, a government that’s shaking down people for stupid things like walking on the left-hand side of the crosswalk.

No, really. They do that.

They are so out of control they’re a class-action suit:

On Wednesday, lawyers from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest firm based in Arlington, Va., filed a civil rights complaint (PDF) against Pagedale, which like Ferguson is in north St. Louis County. The complaint, filed in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, accuses the city of violating due process and excess-fines protections in the Constitution by turning its code enforcement and municipal court into “revenue-generating machines” to go after residents.

The complaint, which seeks class-action status, calls for an injunction against the city’s reliance on such fines.

They released a video full of interviews with Pagedale residents.

Pagedale couple in front of houseIn the video, Vincent Blount described an instance where a member of the city government walked around a friend’s property while he was there. He had a camera and a clipboard, taking notes on his friend’s property.

It’s been so bad for the Blout’s, they’ve had to take out loans to pay the fines. They were even handcuffed and arrested for these tickets and the city has threatened to destroy their home, according to Reason.

According to Institute for Justice, the following are only some of the many restrictions of Pagedale’s municipal Code of Ordinances:

  • Pagedale residents are prohibited from having a basketball hoop or wading pool in front of their house.
  • They may not have a hedge above three feet high.
  • Pedestrians cannot walk on the roadway if there is a sidewalk, and if there is not a sidewalk, they must walk on the left side of the roadway.
  • They must walk on the right side of crosswalks.
  • They may not conduct a barbeque in their front yard except on national holidays and they cannot have more than two people gathered around it and they cannot have alcoholic beverages visible within 150 feet of the grill.
  • Pagedale’s children cannot wear pants below the waist in public or play on the residential streets in front of their homes.

The New York Times says the city attorney for Pagedale, Sam Alton, says this isn’t about the money. It’s about safety.

“It’s got nothing to do with driving up revenue. And it’s got everything to do with making the properties code compliant and safe.”

Right.

As the video notes, you can get fined in Pagedale for having a satellite dish on the front roof of your house, for having a bicycle parked in your front yard or for having a barbecue in your front yard.

If you’re actually crazy enough to try to man the grill and hold a beer at the same time, you’re subject to a fine.

You can even get a ticket if you walk on the left hand side of a cross-walk or have different colored blinds.

Why exactly does the city mandate having mismatched blinds? Is there a problem with people being killed by drunken barbecue fires or poorly cooked processed meat?

Why, other than “driving up revenue” would the city not just pass, but actually enforce mandates like this?

Numbers don’t lie.

Pagedale graph CROP
Increase in number of non-traffic-related offenses.

From Institute for Justice:

About 40 percent of the tickets Pagedale issues are for non-traffic-related offenses. It is almost difficult to believe, but in 2014, the city issued 2,255 non-traffic-related tickets, or roughly two per household.

Once the city issues a citation for a violation of the Pagedale Code, the recipient becomes subject to Pagedale’s municipal court system. The court is held in Pagedale City Hall and the people that the city has ticketed line up long before the session starts. The defendants face a dais with the city prosecutor, the Police Chief, the code inspector, the judge, and the municipal clerk all seated next to one another. Cases are dispatched with alacrity, sometimes mere few minutes.

There are few alternatives to participating in this process. Pagedale’s municipal court convenes twice a month at 6:30 P.M. While a defendant can plead “guilty” by mail, he or she can plead “not guilty” only by coming to court. If the defendant wishes to plead “guilty,” but cannot afford to pay the fine, they usually must come to court. The in-person appearance requirement makes attendance difficult for defendants who work at night, single parents, and those who do not have transportation. If the defendant does not come to court, they risk a warrant for their arrest

The Times mentions the court reform that was passed into law this past year, but it does nothing to address these abuses.

Missouri State Sen. Eric Schmitt was the man behind that law.

“I think it’s appropriate for policy makers to be mindful that there may be another wave of profiteering that manifests itself in a different form, and continues to create a cycle of poverty,” he said. “If we see that, all options are on the table.”

That seems to be the same attitude of the Pagedale government. Anything they can think up to slap fine with, they’re doing it.

All options are on the table.

Luckily, the Institute for Justice is helping correct Pagedale’s over-reach and the lawsuit will hopefully limit them to just what they are supposed to be doing — protecting the rights of the citizens.

What do you think of Pagedale’s actions? Are they just?

Sound off in the comments.

Photo Credit: Institute for Justice

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3 comments

  1. scooter Reply

    Victimless “crimes” are not crimes, they are the means for government to acquire more assets.

  2. pbob67 Reply

    No I doubt it will, after all, they are going to do what ever it is they do, to continue to pay the corrupt politicians who, of course, like the rest of us voted into office. somehow it is the same thing happening all over our nation, (not so much and so hard in the individual cities and states) but our federal government has set the standards to govern, (dead wrong, corrupt, lawlessness, and in most concerns, illegal and debilitating to human lives…

  3. kathycasey Reply

    I just knew when I saw the headline that this was going to be in the St Louis area. It is obviously crazy corrupt and hopefully the class action lawsuit will put a stop to it. Being somewhat of a rebel type, I would deliberately violate every code they had and encourage everyone in town to do the same.

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