Georgia

People in this city are sick of 'ludicrous' fines from officials. Now they're suing

Georgia residents are suing the city of Doraville and claiming the city's financial reliance on ticketing gives it a perverse incentive to issue citations over minor issues like cracked driveways and weeds.
Georgia residents are suing the city of Doraville and claiming the city's financial reliance on ticketing gives it a perverse incentive to issue citations over minor issues like cracked driveways and weeds. Institute for Justice/Video screenshot

An improperly parked trailer. A disheveled woodpile. High weeds in the yard and a cracked driveway.

Residents of the metro Atlanta city of Doraville, Georgia, say they've been hammered with citations from police and city courts over minor violations for years. Now they're suing the city and claiming the town's fervor for fines is unconstitutional.

The case is being brought by four people who were fined by the city — two for traffic violations and two for violations at their homes. The plaintiffs are being represented by lawyers at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group.

They claim the city gets too much of its revenue from the court system, leading to a perverse incentive to fine and convict as many people as possible.

“This whole system is designed to extract money, not to serve and protect the community,” lawyer Josh House told WXIA. “You have a due process right not to have your prosecutor have a financial interest in obtaining your conviction. It's unconstitutional because that incentive drives municipal court personnel and law enforcement to ticket in order to drive revenue for the city."

One of the plaintiffs is Hilda Brucker, who said she received a call out of the blue one day saying multiple violations were found on her property and she was to report to court, she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

According to the lawsuit, when she arrived at court a prosecutor read her violations: a driveway in disrepair, high weeds in the yard and peeling paint.

The court suspended two charges and, after Brucker pleaded no contest to the third, sentenced her to a $100 fine and six months probation. The prosecutor dropped the charges months later, but only after Brucker paid the fine, according to the suit.

“It was just absolutely horrifying for someone like me who never even had a detention in high school,” Brucker told Fox News. She called the fines "ludicrous" in a video for the Institute for Justice.

She told WSB the driveway had been cracked since she bought the home more than two decades ago, and she'd been told it had been cracked for years before then. She still hasn't fixed it.

"Like anyone with an older home, and like anyone with a garden, there potentially could be code violations on her property at any one time that Hilda is not aware of, even while trying to keep her property in order. Doraville could cite her for such violations in the future, just as it has in the past," the lawsuit says.

Another Doraville resident named Jeffery Thornton received warnings and, eventually, a home inspection of his backyard regarding a trailer parked on grass and a disheveled pile of logs. He was soon issued two violations, one for a “large pile of tree logs in backyard” and another citing “[b]oards, buckets, trimmings, and screen against house.”

One charge was suspended, but he was sentenced to pay a $1,000 fine, according to the suit. When he said he couldn't pay, he was sentenced instead to a $300 fine and a year's probation. When he still couldn't pay, the charges were dropped.

"In other words, Doraville ceased its ticketing and collection efforts once it was clear that Jeff could not pay. Public health or safety was never the point of its enforcement action against Jeff," the lawsuit says.

Two other plaintiffs received traffic violations: one for leaving a turn lane she had mistakenly entered and another for changing lanes without signaling, according to the lawsuit.

The city of Doraville received about 19 percent of its budget from fines and forfeitures for its 2017-18 budget, according to the AJC and budget documents.

For many cities with populations higher than 5,000, the percentage is around 1 percent, according to the paper. The Sunlight Foundation found similar numbers, although there many other cities where ticket revenue is a big chunk of the budget.

“That sort of reliance has driven it to ticket people like our clients for things like a stack of wood in their backyard,” House told the AJC. "Municipal government and law enforcement exists to serve and protect, not to ticket and collect from residents and passers-through.”

City officials have declined to comment on the litigation to news outlets, though the Doraville city manager told the AJC after a report on its "aggressive" police force in 2014 "our level of traffic enforcement is extremely reasonable relative to the traffic counts that we have.”

The lawsuit demands $1 in damages, court fees, a declaration the city's practices are unconstitutional and an order for them to end.

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