Pushing back against the small town that bilks hapless residents for violating petty laws

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Posted on November 5, 2015 by Ben BullardViews: 1,005

In the St. Louis suburb of Pagedale, it’s hard to live without violating some small rule. If your curtains don’t match, if your porch light’s out or if you simply cross the street on the left-hand side of the crosswalk, you can be cited and fined — again and again and again.

The micromanaging efforts of the Missouri city leaders have resulted in thousands of petty cases for its municipal court and a flood of revenue for the city. There are 3,300 people in Pagedale. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Pagedale residents received 2,255 citations last year — “nearly two per household.”

The small city tops a long list of St. Louis-area towns whose ordinance enforcement rates have soared in recent years. Since 2010, Pagedale’s citation rate has increased 495 percent. Over the same period, Frontenac, on St. Louis’ west side, has seen an increase of 364 percent.

Anecdotes of zealous enforcement — as well as the burden it’s placed on citizens — read like accounts of tedious and chronic oppression, the stuff of Soviet-era backwater towns where little bureaucrats drowned their unhappiness in the perverse pleasure they could take in mistreating the handful of unlucky people under their charge.

From the Post-Dispatch:

Vincent Blount, 54, and Valarie Whitner, 55, have lived in Pagedale for 20 years. For at least the last seven, they’ve been battling Pagedale’s municipal court.

The couple say they’ve been ticketed for everything you can think of: high grass and peeling paint, an overgrown tree, not recycling and more.

“Every year. Every year,” said Blount, sighing. “They just got me again.”

The latest citation was for a tree limb that fell onto their garage during a winter storm, the couple said. They waited until their insurance company assessed the damage, then placed the chopped up limb on the empty city lot next door. Before a tree service could pick it up, the city’s housing and sanitation inspector arrived.

The couple explained the situation but said it didn’t matter. They received another ticket.

In April, the inspector sent a list of 17 demands for the property.

The couple were given a 30-day deadline to, among other things, add screens and curtains to the windows; remove a dead branch from a tree out back; replace a missing shingle; use weedkiller; finish repairing the garage; install a rear screen door.

The repairs cost money — money the couple have been using to pay the court. They pay $100 a month on a tab that has grown to $1,810. About $1,000 of that was due to nontraffic violations. They still have $800 to pay off.

Blount and Whitner both work full time — he at a container store; she at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“We get by, but we don’t have all this money in the bank,” Blount said.

Compounding situations like Blount’s is the city’s mandatory appearance rule: You must go to court for every citation “because there’s no set fine to be paid by mail.” With so many citations to juggle, inevitable lapses have led to detention for Blount on four separate occasions. The detentions, reports the Post-Dispatch, lasted “a day or two each.”

Pagedale’s population is 90 percent black, so political opportunists who like to find racism lurking under every rock might even describe the law as racist — if they saw opportunity for themselves in doing so. They certainly saw plenty of opportunity three miles up the road in Ferguson, where social justice crusaders swarmed last year to capitalize on a police shooting.

But Pagedale’s abuse of its citizens is slow, incremental and — this is the key — too aligned with the statist cause for the left-wing outrage industry to galvanize in protest. So it’s up to the Institute for Justice (IJ), which has fought and won some significant pro bono litigation battles in which some government entity or other was crushing the little guy.

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