PASADENA HILLS, Mo. — “Lacee Scott?” the judge called. The 23-year-old rose from a hard black plastic chair, walked past the fireplace and stood before the table at the front of the living room.
From the outside, the house is barely distinguishable from others on the street — brick, three bedrooms, built in 1948. Over the entrance, however, there is a sign identifying it as City Hall. Once a month, the living room, with its lamps, hardwood floors and clock on the mantle, becomes a courtroom. Those with business before the judge first check in with the clerk in the dining room before taking a seat among the rows of chairs set up in the family room.
Scott, a senior at Alabama A&M University, had lived in Pasadena Hills during high school. Her father, a former St. Louis County police officer, works for Walgreens. Her mother is the principal of a local elementary school. Last summer, when Scott was home visiting her family, a notice was placed on her car.
Parking had never been an issue in her quiet, suburban community. Pasadena Hills is small, with a population of less than 1,000. But the municipality had recently passed an ordinance requiring those parking overnight to display a $10 residential parking sticker on their vehicles. The notice ordered Scott to come to City Hall to obtain the sticker.
The city office has extemely limited business hours, however. The seven-hour drive from Huntsville, Alabama, back to Pasadena Hills also made it difficult for Scott to appear in person. Soon, the city began mailing her threatening letters.
“They sent me a letter and said there would be a warrant out for my arrest if I didn’t come back for this,” Scott told The Huffington Post of her court appearance. “For $10. For parking in front of my house.”
Such experiences are not uncommon in St. Louis County. According to ascathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice released this month, authorities in nearby Ferguson routinely abused the rights of residents, who were viewed “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.” Attorney General Eric Holder said the Ferguson Police Department had essentially served as a “collection agency,” with officers competing to see who could issue the largest number of citations.
In dozens of interviews with The Huffington Post over the past several months, residents have called the system “out of control,” “inhumane,” “crazy,” “racist,” “unprofessional” and “sickening.” Some have told stories of being slapped with large fines for minor violations and threatened with jail if they couldn’t pay.
“Everyone’s got a horror story about the police,” former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch told HuffPost in a recent interview. “And most of that horror story relates back to being ticketed for some minor violation.”
Even before the DOJ released its report, the need to change the way St. Louis County’s many tiny municipalities operate had become a rallying cry among protesters, lawmakers and even members of law enforcement.
Last year, Missouri’s attorney general filed suit against several municipalities for violating state law regarding the collection of revenue through traffic fines.
“If you think that taxation of our citizens through traffic enforcement in St. Louis County is bad, you have no idea how bad it is,” Belmar said.
There are 90 separate municipalities in all, home to 11 percent of Missouri’s total population. The largest is Florissant, an area of 12 square miles with over 52,000 residents. The smallest, the village of Champ, has just six houses. Population: 13.