Audit finds Sugar Creek violated state caps on traffic ticket fines

SUGAR CREEK, Mo. -- If you were issued a traffic ticket in Sugar Creek, you might have paid too much. A State audit found the small city near Independence was charging between 5 and 10 times the legal amount for some violations.

The excess fines were mostly issued to drivers who didn’t buckle up. State law in Missouri caps fines on certain violations including seat belt and headlight use in fog at $10. Cities with charters, including Kansas City and Independence, are allowed to charge more. Both currently fine drivers $50.

No one is exactly sure when Sugar Creek changed its fine structure. But sources say the city raised its fines to $50 for seatbelt violators several years ago at the advice of the city attorney.  But what apparently no one in the municipal court system or city hall realized is unlike chartered cities, fourth class cities in Missouri can not set their own fines.

“Everybody’s price is different and I don’t think that’s right. It should all be set the same," Kelly Mewes said outside the Sugar Creek license office.

Some city and court officials declined official comment but said they feel the same way about the disparity in the law.

Police Chief Chris Soules said money is not his department's motivation for ticketing drivers for not wearing seat belts.

“We’re not doing this for fines, we’re not here to make money for the city or anything like that we’re here for compliance," Chief Soules said.

It’s unclear how many people were overcharged. The only year the auditor looked at there were 185 seatbelt violations. The audit also found Sugar Creek improperly set the fine and court cost structure for headlight violations in fog to total $125, though both the police chief and clerk of courts said those tickets were rarely written, if at all.

“If they were over charging and the state law is one amount and they charge more I would think it would be fair to refund the difference," Marshall Sanchez said outside the municipal court.

“We can’t say hey can I pay less on this or that? If they are going to overcharge they should give it back," driver Rachel Ruiz agreed.

The city is now following state laws on fines, but has made no plans for refunds.

"Anything could have happened at the time, we apologize but we were doing the best we could," Mayor Mike Larson said.

Larson was elected in April of 2017, just months before the State Auditor announced the audit. Longtime City Administrator Ron Martinovich is scheduled to retire soon. City staff said he was on vacation until his retirement and unavailable for comment.

Auditors said in a news release they also found the court clerk frequently used a signature stamp for issuing warrants instead of having them signed by the judge or documenting specific authorization from the judge to issue the warrant. The court has since addressed those issues and discontinued collecting improper fines and costs.