Today, a federal judge in Georgia denied the city of Doraville’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging its use of traffic tickets and other fines to generate revenue. 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 our clients will get their day in court to challenge the city’s illegal ticketing scheme.”
The judge ruled that the plaintiffs alleged injuries, allowing them to have their cases heard. 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 sentenced her 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, “Here, the City is engaged in a broad pattern of allegedly unconstitutional behavior that is ongoing. As a result of that practice, the City’s officers write dozens of tickets for ordinance and statutory violations, on a daily basis. Ms. Brucker has already been ticketed multiple times, but is yet to take action that would inhibit future citations for the exact same infractions. And should Ms. Brucker be ticketed again, she will be subjected to—as she already has been—a court said to systematically deprive people of their due process rights. The Court therefore finds that Ms. Brucker continues to face a sufficiently imminent threat of injury.”
Each year, Doraville budgets that between 17 and 30 percent of its overall expected revenue will come from fines and fees issued by its police officers and code inspectors. A 2015 Doraville newsletter bragged that “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 a hearing examining how courts have interpreted profit-driven justice systems in the past. The date for that hearing has not been scheduled.