(The Center Square) – A lawsuit over a $3 surcharge on a speeding ticket might mean hundreds of thousands who also paid the fee can reclaim millions after the Missouri Supreme court ruled it unconstitutional.
Daven Fowler and Jerry Keller pleaded guilty after getting speeding tickets in 2017 in the Kansas City area. As they paid their fines, they noticed a $3 fee was added for the Missouri Sheriff’s Retirement System. The Missouri legislature approved a $3 surcharge in 1984 on all civil actions and criminal cases filed in the courts, including violation of any county ordinance or any violation of criminal or traffic laws, including infractions, and ordered the funds payable to the Missouri Sherriff’s Retirement System (MSRS).
Adam Davis, a lawyer representing Fowler and Keller, argued the case before the Missouri Supreme Court on April 13. He referred to a 1986 case of Poole Harrison versus Monroe County. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled 7-0 in favor of Poole, who argued additional court costs in civil cases shouldn’t be directed toward compensation for certain county officials.
“In the Harrison case, this court took a stand against using court surcharges to compensate officials in the executive branch of local governments,” Davis told the court. “The courts should reach that same conclusion in this case, which presents similar issues and should allow these plaintiffs to recoup the illegal surcharges imposed on them and remitted to the Sheriff's Retirement System.”
Lawyers for MSRS, the defendants, argued Fowler and Keller had no legal standing because their attorney paid the court costs, including the surcharge, for them. They also argued the two waived their constitutional claim when failing to do so in municipal court.
A 6-0 ruling in favor of Fowler and Keller was handed down on June 1. Judge Zel. M. Fischer wrote in the opinion the Harrison case is a “bright-line rule that court costs used to enhance compensation paid to executive officials are not ‘reasonably related to the expense of the administration of justice’ and, therefore, violate” the constitution.
A motion to file for class action certification is pending as the defendant has until June 16 to request a rehearing.
“Considering the fact that it was a 6-0 opinion, their chances of getting a hearing are negligible if non-existent,” said Gerald McGonagle, who also represented Fowler and Keller. “I think they know that. Once the mandate is handed down, we will be going right back into court and asking the judge to certify this class.”
The MSRS’s assets were $48,294,392, according to its 2019 annual report. In a letter to trustees and members in the report, Executive Director Jeff Padgett said the organization received $2,139,149 in 2019 from “assessment of fees applied to civil and criminal cases filed in circuit courts and certain court divisions, including municipal courts…” That equates to 713,050 surcharges at $3 per case in 2019. His letter also stated the organization in 2019 issued benefits to 132 retirees and 49 surviving beneficiaries totaling $3,213,971. Administrative expenses were $448,072.
“The full effect of the Court’s ruling is unclear,” Padgett said in a statement on the organization’s website. “I will be meeting with the Retirement System’s board of directors later this week to discuss any additional legal and legislative options.” He admitted disappointment by the ruling, but emphasized a commitment to current and retired Missouri sheriffs so they can receive “the benefits they have earned.”
McGonagle said an attempt to settle the case with MSRS was unsuccessful.
“They weren’t willing to negotiate,” McGonagle said. “We gave them the opportunity three or four years ago to stop collecting the fee and resolve it. I hope this decision will change that posture a little bit, but it’s up to them. They just didn’t want to do anything, even though there was a case directly on this point. We didn’t think this would go far, but the landscape has changed considerably. They took a big gamble and lost.”
There will be no television commercials by law firms offering to help people get their $3 back, McGonagle said.
“Every municipality has records of who paid the fee,” McGonagle said. “We will be able to get that information. And our job is to make sure the Sheriff's Retirement System refunds money to the people they took it from. We’re talking about potentially millions of people.”