Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway has released an audit of the Wellston municipal court, located in St. Louis County. The report describes serious concerns related to the mismanagement of public dollars, missing case files and stalled progress implementing court reforms.
"My team found widespread problems in the Wellston municipal court that directly impact citizens and require immediate action," Auditor Galloway said. "Municipal courts offer the first impression many Missourians have of our justice system, and it erodes citizen trust when the courts that enforce the law can't seem to follow it."
The audit found some court surcharges were not spent on their intended purposes and were not approved by the city council, in accordance with the law. The court assessed a $2 charge on all court cases to benefit local domestic violence shelters. The court took in nearly $5,000 in these fees in 2015, but they did not spend that money on domestic violence shelter operations. Poor record-keeping makes it impossible to tell how the money was spent.
Auditors found little oversight and largely inaccurate records for bail bonds. The court holds bond money in a bank account to ensure the appearance of individuals facing charges on municipal violations. After the case is resolved, and after amounts are applied to court costs, fines or other expenses, any remaining money is supposed to be returned. In this case, court records showed the bond bank account was short by $280,000. Part of that reason is due to some of the money in the account being misspent. For example, the city used about $90,000 from the account to make lease payments for police vehicles. This is not appropriate, because money in the bond account is being temporarily held until it is forfeited, applied or returned. City and court officials made no attempts to identify possible reasons for the shortage in the bond account, to resolve discrepancies in court documents or to replace the money improperly spent from the account.
Wellston municipal court case records were disorganized, incomplete, missing and in many cases, inaccurate, with 90 percent of cases reviewed showing conflicting activity between electronic and paper records. In addition, the court also collected court costs, fees and surcharges on dismissed cases, in violation of Missouri law. Over a one-year period, the court collected approximately $25,000 for around 1,000 cases that have been dismissed.
In addition, the court had not taken all actions ordered by the municipal court judge in response to a court reform law that took effect in 2015. The order required the court to set case reviews for defendants with unpaid balances to discuss alternative penalties, such as payment plans, community service, and fine forgiveness for low-income defendants. The order also required the court to recall all active warrants and issue new summons to those defendants. Although some progress had been made, a number of the judge's instructions had not been addressed. As of April 2016, the court had not recalled 21,000 active warrants in their system, which could lead to an inappropriate arrest if a law enforcement officer consulted the old system.
After Wellston residents petitioned for a review of city operations, the State Auditor launched audits of both the city and the municipal court. The city of Wellston has a population of 2300, and that audit will be released later this year. Because the municipal court received a poor overall performance rating, auditors will return for a follow-up review next year. The complete audit for the Wellston municipal court is available online here.