J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 18, 2020

ATLANTA, Ga.—Yesterday a federal judge ruled against four Georgia residents who had sued the city of Doraville over its practice of heavily relying on fines and fees to balance its budget. The city fined them—two homeowners and two drivers—over extremely minor violations, including a cracked driveway and improperly stacked wood, as part of its policy of using fines and fees to make up anywhere between 34% and 17% of its budget. While ruling for the city, the judge nevertheless found the high percentage concerning, and noted that Doraville was included in a recent report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as the sixth worst city nationwide in reliance on fines and fees—higher even than Ferguson, Missouri.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), argued that the city’s reliance on speeding tickets, minor code enforcement violations and unnecessary fees tacked onto court sentences, violated their due process rights. This was because, as they argued, the tickets were issued not to protect public health and safety, but to raise revenue. However, federal District Judge Richard Story ruled for Doraville because of what seemed to be a lack of pressure on the city’s municipal judge, and its prosecutor and police, from the city council.

“The role of the police and municipal courts should be to serve and protect, not ticket to collect,” said IJ Attorney Joshua House. “There is substantial evidence of a connection between the council’s desire to raise revenue and pressure on the city’s municipal court, prosecutor and police to issue fines and fees. We look forward to making our case to the U.S. Court of Appeals.”

One of the plaintiffs, Hilda Brucker, was fined by Doraville for a cracked driveway. For that extremely minor infraction she was given a misdemeanor conviction and a sentence of six months probation.

“I’m disappointed in today’s ruling but looking forward to continuing the fight on appeal,” said Hilda. “It was a hopeful sign that the judge called out, in his written decision, how an over-reliance on fines and fees distorts the justice system and creates faulty incentives. I’m ready for the next step, and I’m glad to have the Institute for Justice in my corner.”

The Institute for Justice recently issued a report on the nationwide problem of fines and fees. The report highlighted the abuses in Doraville, and rated Georgia as the worst state in the country on the issue, considering its heavy reliance on municipal courts, lack of procedural protections and free hand given to cities to pad their budgets through fining ordinary people for minor offenses.