With just less than 60 days until the April election, the current Farmington city prosecuting attorney has taken some heat from her opponent and responded back on social media.
Running for the position of city prosecutor in Farmington, Cira Duffe, a defense attorney in Farmington, chose to post on Facebook about a case of a client she was representing, indicating she felt her client had been given an unfair plea offer by Duffe's opponent in the upcoming election, incumbent city prosecutor Julie McCarver.
According to Duffe’s Facebook post, McCarver was requesting a defendant pay more for a seat belt ticket than is allowed by state law. McCarver reportedly sent an offer to one of Duffe’s clients to pay a fine of $25 and court costs of $28.50 for a municipal seat belt violation.
Duffe posted an image of the ticket on Facebook and questioned the motive and legality of McCarver's plea offer.
In a follow up interview, Duffe stated that the law, under Missouri Statute RSMo307.178, allows only a $10 fine for not wearing a seat belt and does not allow for court costs to be collected.
“Cities may create ordinances, but that cannot be in conflict or in excess of state law,” said Duffe. “Imposing excessive fines is about maximizing revenue and not about administering justice to the citizens of Farmington.”
Duffe recently took over as city prosecutor of Park Hills after the council opted to part ways with McCarver at the leading of Mayor Daniel Naucke.
According to Duffe, Park Hills received notes on an audit from the Missouri Courts that state excessive fines had been assessed.
“The local bar brought the issue of excessive fines to McCarver’s attention some time back,” claimed Duffe.
McCarver responded to Duffe by first saying that she has done some additional research into this specific Farmington seat belt case and has discovered some facts Duffe failed to mention.
McCarver stated that this particular defendant was pulled over by the Farmington police officer for failing to wear a seat belt and at the time of the stop it was discovered that the defendant also did not have vehicle insurance.
“The officer only gave the defendant a ticket for the seat belt violation because he wanted to ‘give (the driver) a break,’ and so she only received a warning on the no insurance charge. Later, in the same year, the same (driver) was once again pulled over for failing to properly register her vehicle, and once again only received a warning rather than receiving a ticket,” said McCarver.
McCarver stated that Duffe is correct in that RSMo 307.178 applies to seat belt charges in state court. She said Farmington ordinance number 380.160 applies to seat belt charges in Farmington Municipal Court and states that any person in violation of the section shall, upon conviction, be subject to a fine of not less than $10 and not more than $25, plus applicable court costs.
McCarver said that standard court cost in Farmington Municipal Court is $28.50.
In response to Duffe’s allegations that municipal law cannot exceed state law, McCarver said that municipalities are allowed to impose different fines on municipal charges, as long as the fines do not exceed the limitations imposed by Senate RSMo 479.353.
McCarver said that RSMo 479.353 applies only to “minor traffic violations” which cannot exceed $225 including court costs (cases where points are assessed but are four points or less), and code violations which cannot exceed $200 including court costs for a first offense in 12 months, and increased amounts if there are additional charges within a 12-month period (cases such junk, trash, debris).
According to McCarver, a seat belt charge is not considered a minor traffic violation because points are not assessed, and is not considered a code violation, therefore in this case a seat belt ticket does not apply to RSMo 479.353.
“In City of St. John v. Brockus, 434 S.W.3d (E.D. 2014), the court found that municipalities are permitted to enact ordinances to create additional rules of the road to meet their needs provided they are not in conflict with state statutes and that there was no conflict between the city ordinance and the state statute. An increase in a fine amount is not considered a 'conflict,' and is permitted,” said McCarver.
According to McCarver, she and Duffe already discussed this matter with the Farmington municipal judge and the judge indicated that he agreed with McCarver’s interpretation of the law, unless Duffe could provide some type of law proving otherwise, which according to McCarver has not been provided.
On Facebook, Duffe alleged that McCarver is maximizing revenue and should have changed the law. McCarver states that a prosecutor cannot change the law as ordinances are enacted by the city council. In response, McCarver said that if Duffe was as concerned about the municipal law she should bring it to the council rather than taking it to Facebook.
“Ms. Duffe claims that I am allegedly maximizing revenue, rather than seeking justice for the citizens of Farmington,” said McCarver. “The Farmington court and the Farmington city council have already set the standard fines and court costs in Farmington municipal court. Because of this process, I have no control over setting the standard for what ‘revenue’ would be for the city of Farmington."
McCarver said that ultimately the final decision on a negotiated plea, including the final decision regarding fines and court costs, is left up to the municipal judge.
As for the alleged Missouri court review of the Park Hills Municipal Court on Jan. 19 and that the results of this "review" were allegedly "excessive fines assessed,” McCarver said she has no knowledge of any such review, and doesn't know what "Missouri court" Duffe was referencing.
“The Missouri State Auditor's Office does conduct audits of the municipal courts on occasion, but it is my understanding that such an audit is of the court system itself (municipal judge, municipal court clerks, the bookkeeping by the municipal court clerks, etc.), and that such an audit is not an audit of the municipal prosecutor,” said McCarver.
McCarver said that such an audit would typically take at least four to six months to complete, and sometimes longer.
“Because I worked for the City of Park Hills until mid-December, it would seem unlikely that such an audit was being conducted without my knowledge, as auditors typically will meet with those involved with the court,” she explained.
In response to Duffe’s social media allegations that she has been reprimanded by the local bar for excessive fines, “These allegations are false,” said McCarver. “I have consulted with a number of local defense attorneys about this statement by Ms. Duffe, and they are as surprised as I am by the allegation.”
“It is concerning that Ms. Duffe cannot just focus on how she is qualified for this elected position, but instead feels the need to attack me with untrue statements. It has been my experience that the citizens are not impressed by a dirty campaign, and unfortunately that is exactly what Ms. Duffe's campaign has become,” said McCarver.