Improperly stacked wood. A cracked driveway. Chipped paint on a porch.
These are the kinds of offenses the government of Doraville, Georgia, is using to fine residents and threaten them with jail, all in an explicit attempt to balance the budget of the 8,000-person Atlanta suburb. Now people hit by some of those fines are suing the city in federal court, arguing that its direct financial interest in convicting people tried by its municipal court violates the 14th Amendment’s due process guarantee.
The lawsuit, filed by the Institute for Justice, “seeks to stop municipalities from budgeting to receive fines and fees,” says I.J. attorney Josh House. “Where you have a city that uses these numbers to balance its budget, you are creating an unconstitutional incentive to use the municipal court to balance this budget.”
From 2016 to 2017, Doraville pulled in about $3.5 million in fines, accounting for a quarter of the city’s budget. A 2017 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found that the town ranked sixth in the nation in the percentage of its budget coming from fines.
As Reason has covered extensively, the use of fines and penalties as a source of revenue, and cops and code enforcers as shadow tax collectors, is not limited to Doraville. But House says Doraville is unusually brazen. “This is a city that is unapologetic about its use of ticketing to raise money,” he says, pointing to this boast in a 2015 city government newsletter: “Averaging 15,000 cases and bringing in over $3 million annually, the court system contributes heavily to the city’s bottom line.”
The four plaintiffs in the case against Doraville include Hilda Brucker, who was summoned to municipal court in October 2016 by a court employee who said she had failed to appear for a hearing about code violations on her property. Brucker says she never received a warning or court summons and was never given a chance to correct the violations. She was nevertheless forced to defend herself against a city prosecutor who claimed she was guilty of three unabated violations, including a cracked driveway, overgrown weeds in her backyard, and a front porch with rotted boards and chipped paint.
Brucker was convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to a $100 fine and sixth months of probation. As conditions of her probation, Brucker was forced to report to a parole officer, avoid “alcoholic intoxication,” and cooperate with code enforcement on request. Failure to do any of these things could result in jail time. “It’s so ridiculous and ludicrous,” Brucker says in an Institute for Justice video. “No one asked me to fix the driveway. This is a neighborhood of very old driveways.”
Brucker’s neighbor Jeff Thorton was called before Doraville’s municipal court in July 2016 after being notified that an arrest warrant had been issued for a missed court date he claims he was never told about. Thornton’s crime was keeping a pile of wood in his backyard that did not conform to the city’s exacting requirement that logs be cut into squared segments four inches wide and eight inches long. He also was accused of having “boards, buckets, and trimmings” stacked against the side of his house.
In October 2016, Thornton was fined $1,000 for his wood pile. When Thornton protested that he could not afford the fine, his punishment was reduced to a $300 fine and 12 months of probation. When he claimed the $300 fine was still too steep, the charge was dropped entirely. “Doraville ceased its ticketing and collection efforts once it was clear that Jeff could not pay,” the Institute for Justice complaint says. “Public health or safety was never the point of its enforcement action against Jeff.”
The other two plaintiffs represented by the Institute for Justice are Janice Craig and Byron Billingsley, nonresidents who were stopped for traffic violations while driving through Doraville. Craig was charged with changing lanes “in a way that held up traffic,” while Billingsley was accused of changing lanes without signaling.
Doraville has a reputation as a speed trap, using its location on the Atlanta beltway to ticket freeway commuters for traffic offenses. A 2014 Atlanta Constitution-Journal investigation found that Doraville was raking in the same amount from traffic fines as nearby Roswell, which had a population nearly 10 times as large. Of the $3.4 million in fines that Doraville collected from August 2016 through August 2017, the complaint notes, nearly $1 million came from citations for driving without a valid license or valid registration.
House says Doraville’s ability to squeeze drivers helps explain why it relies on fines rather than tax revenue to fund basic municipal operations. “Most of the people ticketed are drivers,” he says. “They’re not actually residents. That means you can raise money on the backs of people who don’t live in your city and don’t vote for you.”
The Institute for Justice argues that Doraville’s practice of building ticket revenue into its budget, which encourages enforcement efforts aimed at meeting the target, violates the due process rights of the people the city fines . “When you go to court, you expect your judge to be neutral,” he says. “You expect your prosecutor to not be paid as a direct consequence of convicting and fining people. That is fundamentally a due process problem.”