Following television news story, city finds 13 tickets paid over the legal limit for minor violations; refunds being processed

Refund checks from the City of Palmyra will soon be in the mail for 13 people, after a concerted effort by Palmyra city officials discovered amended tickets that had exceeded a cap established through a 2016 state law for minor traffic violations.

City officials in the municipal court and the prosecuting attorney’s office have established new procedures and are preparing the refunds following a mistake on an amended ticket offer for a St. Louis county motorist, where a $100 voluntary law enforcement fund donation brought the total charges past the state’s $225 cap. The refunds are being issued following controversy after a St. Louis television station aired a story examining the city’s practice of charging a $100 “voluntary donation” fee on speeding tickets issued by the city’s police department.

Mayor Loren Graham said that staff members with the municipal court clerk’s office and Palmyra Prosecuting Attorney James Lemon’s office independently reviewed 70 tickets from January to the the present date, locating 13 tickets with erroneous charges totaling just over $900. And Lemon made a decision to stop requesting the law enforcement fund donations established through a city ordinance similar to that in other Northeast Missouri communities.

“However, because of the controversy, I don’t intend to request that people make a donation to it in the future,” Lemon said. “It’s simply not worth the controversy.”

Graham said he discovered the issue through the Sunday, Sept. 24 story by KMOV, stressing he would have taken action much sooner if information had been brought to his attention before the story was aired.

“Both the City of Palmyra and this office take the law seriously,” Lemon said. “In this case mistakes were made and that falls upon me and my office. However, when we were made aware of this specific incident, it was corrected.”

Lemon said that employees in his office received additional training regarding the state requirements, and two people will review each citation to be sure that fees for minor violations do not exceed $225.

KMOV reported that St. Louis County motorist Janine Hofer received an amended ticket in June to change the citation from a moving violation to an equipment violation — a standard procedure. In addition to the fee for the violation, the amended ticket requested a “voluntary” $100 donation to the city’s law enforcement fund. The resulting total exceeded the state-mandated cap of $225 for minor traffic violations. Hofer declined to pay the voluntary donation, and her payment was rejected by the City of Palmyra when she did not. Scott Heitland, Hofer’s lawyer and relative, said that amending the ticket with the voluntary donation was “extortion” to boost the law enforcement fund.

City officials have taken exception to allegations that the request for the $100 donation was extortion — even though it appeared it Hofer’s case, the donation wasn’t voluntary.

Lemon said Heitland did not possess competence in this area of law, because “an offer from a prosecutor is a suggestion, and is not binding.” He said he did not receive contact from Heitland, which could have allowed for a different resolution to the matter.

Lemon said that for each ticket, a person is entitled to enter a plea of not guilty and receive a trial to prove their innocence or plead guilty and offer an explanation to the judge. He stressed that amendments to tickets are not a right, and there are other options besides fees — such as a suspended imposition of the sentence or community service.

“This lady did not pay more than $225 to the City, and the order that was actually entered by the judge was for $225 on an equipment violation, not for driving 72 in a 55 which she was guilty of. Further, we have taken specific steps to prevent the problem from reoccurring in the future,” Lemon said.

Lemon said it’s crucial to note that a majority of traffic through Palmyra flows along the U.S. Highway 61. He said 60 percent of traffic stops are made along that route — 60 percent of those stops result in a warning — while the other 40 percent of traffic stops are made on other roads. He joined Police Chief Eddie Bogue in expressing concern that five people lost their lives over the past 15 years in the speed zone area. A majority of the speeding tickets issued by Palmyra police officers were for speeds in excess of 74 MPH, Lemon said, and all tickets combined accounted for less than five percent of total revenue for the city.

Graham said he felt the KMOV news story “blew things out of proportion,” citing references to extortion.

“Extortion to me means you willfully tried to rip somebody off, and that’s not the case here,” Graham said. “There were some mistakes made, but we didn’t willfully try to steal from anybody.”

Bogue took exception to characterizations of the speed zone through Palmyra as a “trap,” stressing that speeding accounted for 898 fatalities and 4,406 serious injuries from 2012 to 2014 in Missouri. He said officers with the police department are committed to community safety and enforcing the law — noting that at least 75 percent of Palmyra residents use that area of highway every day.

“This ‘speed trap’ area in question is the same location where five people have lost their lives in the past 15 years, in part to motorists committing traffic violations related to speed and failure to yield,” Bogue said. “I’m sure the families of these individuals who were killed really wished there was a way for a violator to be ‘trapped’ before their loved one was killed.”

Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at trevor.mcdonald@courierpost.com