JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. » For years, poor black residents of St. Louis County have complained bitterly about being jailed when they could not pay traffic fines. Protesters in Ferguson, after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by the police last year, even cited those fines – and related trips to jail – as a major reason for their anger.
So when a measure was introduced recently in the Republican-held General Assembly calling for sharp limits in the revenue that Missouri towns can derive from traffic fines, it was not surprising that black lawmakers voiced support. What was unexpected were their allies in the cause: white, suburban Republicans, a former St. Louis County police chief and leaders from several conservative groups.
"If the St. Louis Tea Party coalition and the ACLU are on the same page on something, we must be going down the right path," Bill Hennessy, a leader of the Tea Party group, told a legislative committee the other day, moments after a local American Civil Liberties Union leader testified in support of the measure.
Their unlikely alliance helped the ticket-revenue bill pass unanimously in the state Senate on Thursday, with approval in the House considered very likely – even as a host of other post-Ferguson measures intended to regulate the police are struggling to gain traction.
Missouri is hardly the only place where left and right are joining forces on law enforcement issues. In Cincinnati, libertarians and the NAACP together fought a jail expansion and red-light cameras. In Philadelphia, a coalition of conservatives and civil rights defenders has opposed civil asset forfeiture, a law enforcement practice that has often targeted small-business owners and the poor.
And on the national level, two longtime political foes – FreedomWorks, a conservative group closely allied with the Tea Party, and MoveOn.org, the liberal advocacy group – are the anchor organizations in a new venture, called the Coalition for Public Safety, to push for changes in criminal justice policy.
The two sides’ motivations remain sharply different. Conservatives are driven by opposition to what they consider intrusive government and stealth taxes, while liberals cite issues like racial injustice and income inequality.
"We’re repopulating the right-of-center with what I would call classical libertarian ideas," said Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks. He called the familiar squabbles between conservatives and liberals like the Rev. Al Sharpton over law enforcement issues "a tired old debate that misses the point."
Here in Missouri, where the events in Ferguson inflamed racial and political tensions, the effort to bar towns from reaping inordinate revenue from traffic tickets and related penalties is quickly gaining steam. It is also uniting people who disagreed over whether the shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager killed by a police officer in Ferguson, was justified.
The measure the Senate passed Thursday would drop, in phases, the amount of revenue that municipalities in large metropolitan counties could derive from traffic fines to 10 percent from 30 percent. Smaller, rural towns could keep as much as 20 percent from traffic fines and fees. Any money collected above the new limits would be sent to the state for use in local schools.
The measure would also add assurances of enforcement, allowing residents of municipalities that failed to meet the requirements to vote on whether to disincorporate.
Last Sunday, 15 people from Ferguson and the nearby city of Jennings filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court asserting that the cities rampantly issued traffic tickets to finance their municipal operations. The plaintiffs said poor people, particularly blacks, bore the brunt of those fines, with many winding up in jail when they could not pay them off.
Though Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has not weighed in on the particulars of the bill, he has called for more teeth in enforcing caps on traffic fine revenue for cities. In an interview, he said he saw "a bipartisan push" underway to do that.
Certainly, there are opponents. Mayors of some small cities here argue that traffic stops are about safety, not money. And some rural lawmakers far from St. Louis say they worry about how local communities would make up for the lost revenue.
Yet state Sen. Eric Schmitt, a white Republican and the primary sponsor of the proposed cap, said he had sought support from across the political spectrum before introducing a bill. One of the sponsors is state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a black Democrat who was arrested during a demonstration in Ferguson.
"This is where people are kind of meeting up," Schmitt said. "Maybe it’s for slightly different reasons, whether it’s the overreach of government, government not willing to live within its means, or as it plays out for the poor. However you want to slice it and dice it, there’s a commonality of interest."
In Ohio, Christopher P. Finney, a white libertarian lawyer in Cincinnati who has helped numerous communities fight the use of red-light cameras, said he was part of a coalition that included the Green Party, the NAACP, small-business owners and anti-tax groups.
"For us, for the whites, it was more theoretical," Finney said, "but for the black people, they have to live with this, and they’re far more impacted."
He discovered he shared goals with Christopher Smitherman, then the head of the local NAACP, several years ago when their county wanted to impose a half-cent tax to build a larger jail. (They blocked it.) The coalition that formed has since forced several issues, including a ban on red-light cameras, onto the ballot, often winning by wide margins.
"We might have had different reasons of why we were at the table, but we were able to work together," said Smitherman, now a Cincinnati city councilman. "I think that’s the highest level of political sophistication. It really upsets the apple cart."
A number of groups, including the libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice and the ACLU, have worked to curb law enforcement abuses of civil asset forfeiture laws. More recently, Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, and Joan Blades, a founder of MoveOn.org, have co-written op-ed essays saying that under civil asset forfeiture, owners are essentially "guilty until proven innocent," and calling for Congress to reform the practice.
Kibbe said the time was right for "transpartisan," rather than bipartisan, political action. He cited increased attention to civil rights and criminal justice issues after the Ferguson killing, as well as what he considers a strengthening libertarian streak on both the right and left.
Based on member feedback, he said, FreedomWorks has expanded its focus from fiscal and limited-government issues to civil liberties such as the National Security Agency’s spying on civilians and civil asset forfeiture. Working with left-wing groups would inevitably temper the vitriol of today’s politics, he said.
"You can’t keep fighting the caricature of the other side if you’ve sat down with them and had a cup of coffee," he said.
In Missouri, there is a concern among African-American lawmakers, however, that bipartisan concurrence on the ticket-revenue question will eclipse debate over other legislation proposed in the aftermath of Brown’s death. More than 30 measures are pending, including ones that would require police officers to wear cameras, have independent agencies investigate police shootings and rewrite the state’s law on police use of force.
Some lawmakers say they worry that conservatives will pass changes to the ticket-revenue limits but avoid those other bills.
"Is this legislation we can all agree on, limiting ticket revenues, the right thing to do? Yes," said Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat who took part in protests after Brown’s death. "Is it what killed Michael Brown? No. It’s an easy out for uncomfortable people who don’t want to deal with race."
Monica Davey and Shaila Dewan, New York Times