A lawsuit against Doraville challenging the city’s use of traffic tickets and other fines to generate revenue may go forward.
Earlier in July, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that four plaintiffs (two residents and two drivers who commute through Doraville) had sufficiently alleged that the city, by budgeting for and relying on fines and fees to fund itself, violated the U.S. Constitution and that their case may proceed.
About a year ago, Attorneys for the Institute for Justice came to Doraville after being contacted by residents.
“After investigating, we realized that Doraville was one of the most prolific ticket writers in the country and certainly in the Atlanta area,” said Attorney Joshua House.
At that time, city officials issued the following response, “Because this is to be litigated, the city will not at this time directly respond publicly to these allegations, except and foremost to say this lawsuit is without merit and our attorneys will address this through the justice system. However, what the city does desire to share with the public at this time is reminders about the city’s Police Department law enforcement and traffic activities; and code enforcement policies. The city has adopted laws and ordinances for the sole purpose of ensuring that our city is a safe, clean and healthy place to live and visit. The goal of the police department is to protect and serve our citizens. The city has no Traffic Division as our police officers are focused on community policing in our neighborhoods and crime prevention of a serious nature.
Our property maintenance codes, enforced by a contractor, has no ties to how many citations are written, but to public outreach and education to ensure neighbors maintain their property to a standard to which all are held. In fact, in the recent Request for Proposals for this contract service the requirements specifically cited the desire of the city to prevent violations. Potential contractors were requested to submit ways and programs in which they would work to mitigate the need for enforcement measures.
In both the Police Department and Code Enforcement Division of Community Development, there is no responsibility for revenue collection and the focus is on progressive compliance (with) citations being a last resort.”
However, in his ruling earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story wrote, “Millions of dollars each year are generated from the enforcement of Doraville’s criminal ordinances. . . . [M]any of the ordinances at issue were not enacted in furtherance of public health and safety (at least not at face value); they deal, instead, with aesthetics—for instance, a home having chipped paint, overgrown vegetation, or logs stacked in the yard. Doraville therefore has as much to gain (if not more) from citizens violating these ordinances, as it does from everyone adhering to them.”
One resident and plaintiff, Hilda Brucker, said she found out that the city had issued a citation after a hostile phone call, although she had received no prior warnings. She later learned the citation stated she was charged with “rotted wood on house and chipping paint on fascia boards”; “high weeds in backyard and ivy on tree and vines on house”; and “driveway in a state of disrepair.” Brucker pled guilty to the driveway charge, while the other two charges were dismissed. She paid a fine of $100 and was sentenced to six months probation, where she had to report to a probation officer, avoid alcoholic intoxication, and cooperate “with code enforcement upon request.” Brucker later hired an attorney who filed a motion to vacate her sentence, but the motion was continued several times, eventually being granted only after her six-month probation would have already ended.
“Hilda walked out of court a convicted criminal for having a cracked driveway,” stated House. “Each year, Doraville’s budget anticipates that between 17 and 30 percent of the city’s overall expected revenue will come from fines and fees issued by its police officers and code inspectors. A 2015 Doraville newsletter bragged that by averaging nearly 15,000 cases and bringing in over $3 million annually Doraville’s court system contributes heavily to the city’s bottom line. By putting fine revenue into its annual budget, Doraville creates a perverse incentive for police, prosecutors, and even its municipal court to police for profit, rather than seek justice and protect the health and safety of the city.”
According to the Institute for Justice, the next step in the lawsuit is that Doraville must file an answer to the plaintiffs’ complaint. Then the case will likely proceed to discovery.