St. Paul considers changing some ordinance violations from criminal penalties to fines

St. Paul is looking at changing the penalty for some city ordinances from a criminal charge to what they call "an administrative fine" or a "financial penalty."

The St. Paul Charter Commission is considering the change after the St. Paul City Council voted unanimously to send the proposal to the commission.

Currently in the City of St. Paul, most ordinance violations for things like animal control and zoning issues are penalized through the Ramsey County court process. This means that criminal penalties can be attached to a person’s criminal record if they fail to comply with some ordinances.

"I don’t think the idea is to give people a criminal record. The idea is to get compliance," St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen said.

She says that’s why she and other city council members voted unanimously to ask the City Charter to change the city’s policy so they can start implementing administrative fines instead of bringing criminal charges.

"Administrative fines are a tool that most major cities have. Duluth, Minneapolis, both have administrative fines," Brendmoen said.

At a public hearing at the city’s Charter Commission on Monday, several people spoke out against the idea of changing the city’s charter to include administrative fees. Some said they feared the fees would disproportionately impact low income families saying wealthy individuals who committed the same violation would not be burdened as much as people who make less money.

Others raised concerns that the lack of criminal charges would mean fewer people comply with ordinances because the risk is not as high.

"What evidence is there behind the assumption that imposing civil penalties will improve timeliness and compliance? How will we know if it’s working?" one St. Paul resident said.

Those in favor of the change say it would mean consequences for violating city ordinances could come quicker since they would not go through the Ramsey County court process. Others say it is more equitable since it would not place a criminal charge on someone’s record, impacting their ability to get a job or housing.

Several members of the Charter Commission raised questions and concerns about the details of the change. The charter examined a similar proposal in 2019 and ultimately did not move forward. Some commission members questioned if the change was necessary since policies are already in place to deal with ordinance violations.

"The issues have to be very dramatic for me to think about changing the charter," said Deborah Montgomery with the St. Paul Charter Commission.

There is another public hearing on this issue scheduled on September 13. If the charter change passes, the City Council would need to approve it and then vote on how the fines would be applied to each individual city ordinance.