A federal judge on May 18 granted final approval to a groundbreaking consent decree that will significantly reform the city of Pagedale, Mo., and its ticketing policies, housing code and municipal court. The consent decree is the end result of a class-action lawsuit brought in 2015 by people ticketed and threatened with tickets by the city. The suit alleged that the city identified, ticketed, prosecuted and convicted its residents to raise revenue for the city, rather than for legitimate health and safety reasons.
The suit was brought by the Institute for Justice and a pro bono Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner team that included St. Louis Partner Ben Clark and Associate Michael Lanahan. Handling the case to conclusion were St. Louis Associate Barbara Smith, Partner Jeff Russell and Clark.
Located in north St. Louis County, Mo., Pagedale is a town of about 3,000 residents, many of whom live under the poverty line. Despite the limited resources of its residents, the city relied on fines and fees derived from tickets as an essential revenue source for the chronically deficit-ridden city. After the state of Missouri restricted the percentage of revenue from traffic tickets that a municipality could keep, the number of tickets Pagedale issued for housing violations exploded, with the end result being that 39 percent of the entire adult population of the city were cited for housing violations.
These violations were often for trivial matters, not for legitimate reasons or genuinely harmful conditions, it was contended. Pagedale residents were ticketed for such things as not having curtains on their basement windows, having mismatched blinds, having more than three people at a barbecue and having a basketball hoop in the front of their house. The city also prosecuted residents for conditions that were not forbidden by the municipal code, like having a crack in one’s driveway or an untreated fence. Other times, residents had no way to know the basis of the citation at all – many violations lacked any information about the nature of the alleged offense.
The plaintiffs asserted that municipal court days resulted in long lines of residents waiting lengthy periods for admission to the courtroom, and cursory treatment of the many individual matters once inside. The end result for many residents was a constant stream of tickets and a never-ending cycle of debt that often led to poverty, loss of one’s job, arrest and alienation from society.
In 2015, three Pagedale residents – Valarie Whitner, Vincent Blount and Mildred Bryant – sued the city on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated. Represented for free by BLCP and the national public interest law firm the Institute for Justice, the residents brought a class-action suit alleging that the city’s reliance on revenue from fines and fees violated the 14th Amendment’s due process guarantee by interjecting an impermissible institutional financial interest into the city’s civil and criminal justice system. The suit also alleged that the city’s policy of making harmless conditions around residents’ homes subject to fines and fees violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution. After more than two and a half years of litigation, the parties negotiated the consent decree, which was finalized by Federal Judge Rodney W. Sippel on May 18.
During the hearing seeking judicial approval of the decree, Clark addressed the court to urge approval of the decree, both as a representative of BCLP and a longtime citizen of the area. He pointed out that the firm opened its doors in St. Louis in 1873, has seen many important community issues arise, and is pleased to be part of a resolution to a complex problem that featured zealous advocacy by both sides but led to a result that will help move past this particular community issue and ultimately to meaningful change in Pagedale's operations. In announcing his decision to approve the decree, Judge Sippel noted Clark’s words, stating in effect that, while the litigation had been at times hotly contested, the parties had worked together meaningfully to achieve a result that is fair, reasonable and in the public interest.
“Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner is proud to have made a difference in the lives of so many residents of North St. Louis County through this litigation,” Clark said. “All St. Louisans, like all Americans, deserve the fundamental protections our Constitution guarantees, and we are thrilled to have played a part in ensuring those rights are protected in our own backyard.”
“Judge Sippel’s approval finally brings the city of Pagedale’s criminal and civil justice system into compliance with the requirements of the Constitution,” said Bill Maurer, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “The consent decree provides defendants with meaningful protections as they move through the city’s justice system. We appreciate the city’s willingness to come to the table and agree to implement these critical and sweeping reforms.”