$3 Missouri surcharge to help fund sheriff pension fund

Sunday, July 14, 2013 | 5:37 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — People convicted in Missouri municipal courts for ordinance violations, such as driving too fast or playing music too loud, soon could be forced to cough up another $3.

The money is expected to raise at least $1.5 million annually and will be used to help replenish the pension fund of roughly 150 retired Missouri sheriffs and their spouses, The Kansas City Star reported. In early July, the state told judges in more than 575 Missouri municipal courts to start collecting the money from every violator they see.

But the surcharge has sparked outrage from some municipal judges across the state.

"It's really ugly," said Frank Vatterott, a lawyer and part-time municipal judge in Overland. "We have poor people in our courts."

Vatterott is preparing a legal challenge to the surcharge.

Other municipal judges worry that additional surcharges could be added, bumping $50 traffic tickets to $150 or more.

"Where does it stop?" asked Garry Helm, a lawyer and a part-time municipal court judge in several eastern Jackson County communities.

State officials insist they're following the law, noting that circuit courts have collected the $3 fee for years. But municipal courts, which are considered a subdivision of circuit courts, have long believed the law didn't apply to them.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has said at least twice that they're wrong. All "the courts of this state," including municipal courts, need to collect the surcharge, he said in an opinion last April.

In early July, the Missouri Office of the State Court Administrator, which supervises state courts under the umbrella of the Missouri Supreme Court, began notifying municipal court clerks of Koster's view. The clerks were issued "guidance" to begin collecting the additional $3 by Aug. 28.

Just two years earlier, Missouri Office of the State Court Administrator rejected Koster's view, calling the fee "contrary to how the courts have interpreted that statute" and pointing out that Koster's opinions are nonbinding.

But Greg Linhares, the statewide court administrator, said in an email that Koster's most recent opinion "clarifies" the fee, leading to the change of opinion.

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