Fresh off our victory against an unconstitutional fines and fees scheme in Pagedale, Missouri (see page 10), IJ launched a new case representing four Georgians taking on financially motivated code enforcement in their community.
Hilda Brucker received a $100 fine and six months of probation because of her cracked driveway. Jeff Thornton was sentenced to a $300 fine and a year of probation because he had improperly stacked wood in his backyard. Janice Craig was forced to pay a $215 ticket because she “held up traffic” when changing lanes. And Byron Billingsley received a ticket, which was reduced to $100, after he changed lanes without using his signal to pass a truck moving five miles per hour on an open road in the middle of the day.
If these criminal sentences seem disproportionate to the alleged crimes, that’s because they are. These are violations that most American towns never enforce because they pose no real threat to public safety. But Doraville, Georgia—a city of approximately 9,000—relies heavily on criminal fines and fees to balance its budget. In fact, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently found that, among tens of thousands of cities nationwide with populations over 5,000, Doraville is the sixth most reliant on fines and fees revenue.
In other words, there is a straightforward explanation for our clients’ tickets: Doraville needs to ticket, convict, and fine people in order to stay afloat.
According to its last four audited financial statements, Doraville relies on fines and fees for about 24 percent of its operating revenue. Doraville’s dependence on fines and fees is no secret. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has called Doraville one of Georgia’s worst speed traps. And the city even boasted, in a newsletter to its residents, that “[a]veraging nearly 15,000 cases and bringing in over $3 million annually, [Doraville’s municipal] court system contributes heavily to the city’s bottom line.”
According to its last four audited financial statements, Doraville relies on fines and fees for about 24 percent of its operating revenue.
Doraville’s finances shouldn’t be dependent on finding people to ticket and fine.
Doraville’s financial incentive to convict, ticket, and fine residents and passers-through infects all levels of Doraville’s municipal court system. The city’s municipal court judges and prosecutors both serve at the pleasure of the City Council—the same City Council that sets Doraville’s budget. Every official knows that the city’s finances are heavily dependent on income from the municipal court.
That financial incentive is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that judges cannot have even the appearance of financial interest in the cases that come before them. And prosecutors cannot have a direct financial incentive to pursue a conviction. In the United States, a defendant should enter a courtroom and expect an unbiased court and prosecutor. But in Doraville, defendants enter the courtroom knowing that the deck is stacked against them.
Doraville’s finances shouldn’t be dependent on finding people to ticket and fine. That’s why Hilda, Jeff, Janice, and Byron have teamed up with IJ to file a federal lawsuit challenging Doraville’s unconstitutional financial incentive to use its municipal courts and law enforcement personnel to drive revenue. They are asking the court to end Doraville’s perverse incentive system by stopping the city from balancing its budget using fines and fees.
IJ is leading the nationwide fight against policing for profit in all its forms, fighting against civil forfeiture, excessive fines, and abusive code enforcement. A victory in Doraville will go a long way toward eliminating unconstitutional financial incentives in government once and for all.
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