Arlington, Va.—Today, a federal judge in Georgia ruled that a lawsuit challenging the city of Doraville’s use of traffic tickets and other fines to generate revenue may go forward. The lawsuit was brought by two Doraville homeowners and two others who commute through Doraville. These plaintiffs partnered with the Institute for Justice (IJ), a non-profit, public interest law firm, and alleged that Doraville’s revenue-reliant justice system creates a perverse incentive to police for profit, rather than neutrally apply the law.
“Police are supposed to serve and protect, not ticket to collect,” said Josh House, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Yet, that’s exactly what they are doing in Doraville. Today’s decision means that Doraville will have to answer our clients’ complaint against its illegal ticketing scheme.”
The judge ruled that the plaintiffs 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. Among the lawsuit’s plaintiffs is Hilda Brucker. Two years ago, Hilda received a call from a city clerk demanding that she come down to the court house immediately. Hilda had no idea what was going on. When she got there, Hilda was confronted by a city judge and prosecutor armed with photos of her driveway, arguing that its cracks violated Doraville’s city code. Hilda protested that this was the first she’d heard about it, and that she’d never even received so much as a “fix-it ticket.” The prosecutor wasn’t having it, and the judge proceeded to impose a fine and sentence Hilda to six months of probation. Hilda walked out of court a convicted criminal for having a cracked driveway.
In his decision, 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.” Judge Story thus concluded, “All things considered, then, the Court  finds that (based on the allegations in the Complaint) the City and its municipal court depend heavily on fines and fees revenue, and Doraville’s municipal court judges have a strong enough motive to maximize those revenue to warrant a reasonable fear of partisan influence in decisions related to ordinance violations and the assessing of criminal penalties.”
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.
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.