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Municipal court surcharge ruled unconstitutional

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

The Missouri Supreme Court recently held that a $3 surcharge collected by municipal courts, and then distributed to the sheriffs’ retirement fund, is unconstitutional. In Fowler v. Missouri Sheriffs’ Retirement System, the Court considered the claims of two plaintiffs who paid the $3 surcharge as part of their court costs after pleading guilty to speeding in Kansas City. The surcharge is required by § 57.955 RSMo. to be collected “in all civil actions filed in the courts of this state and in all criminal cases including violation of any county ordinance or any violation of criminal or traffic laws of this state, including infractions…” The statute provides that the surcharge monies collected by the courts “shall be payable to the sheriffs’ retirement fund,” which pays benefits to retired elected county sheriffs and their spouses, if the elected sheriff served for at least eight years. The plaintiffs filed suit on behalf of a class of all Kansas City municipal court litigants who paid the surcharge. The plaintiffs argued that the statue requiring the surcharge, § 57.955 RSMo., violated Article I, § 14 of the Missouri Constitution. That provision of the Constitution provides that “the courts of justice shall be open to every person, and certain remedy afforded for every injury to person, property or character, and that right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.” Art. I, § 14. The Missouri Supreme Court had previously ruled that Article I, § 14 requires that a statute imposing a court cost must be “reasonably related to the expense of the administration of justice.” The Court had also already decided, in the 1986 case Harrison v. Monroe County, that court costs “used to enhance compensation paid to executive officials are not ‘reasonably related to the expense of the administration of justice.’” Therefore, the Court ruled that because § 57.955 requires municipal courts to collect a court cost (the surcharge) to “enhance the compensation of executive department officials – [i.e.] retired county sheriffs,” the surcharge clearly violated the Missouri Constitution. The case was remanded to the trial court to determine remaining issues and presumably issue plaintiffs and the class a refund. Any cities collecting this surcharge may want to discuss this matter with their city attorneys.

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