A federal class action lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges DeKalb County for years tried traffic cases in a court that lacked the proper jurisdiction in “a scheme to generate revenue for a cash-strapped local government.”
According to the suit, the DeKalb Recorder’s Court, which handled traffic cases until earlier this year, was authorized to hear only county ordinance violations. The court’s operations were merged into DeKalb State Court.
DeKalb policymakers consciously disregarded the limits of the Recorder’s Court in order to make up for a budget shortfall, said attorney Marlan Wilbanks, who filed the suit on behalf of four DeKalb citizens.
“DeKalb took money from citizens who were stopped on traffic offenses, when it had absolutely no legal right to do so,” Wilbanks said.
DeKalb spokesman Burke Brennan said, “We have not received it yet, but we will review the filing and respond appropriately in court.”
Attorney Troy Hendrick, also representing the plaintiffs in the suit, said county violated the separation of powers by having appointed judges hear traffic cases that, under state law, should be tried by elected jurists.
“The system as a whole was unconstitutional,” Hendrick said. “Judges were accountable to the county commission, not the public.”
The suit alleges DeKalb officials “knew or should have known that confiscating funds … violated plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights.”
But the county proceeded to anyway, driven by a $60 million budget shortfall former CEO Burrell Ellis inherited when he took office in 2009, according to the suit.
“Ellis and other county officials began searching desperately for untapped sources of revenue,” the complaint states. “They found one such source in the DCRC, which reportedly had a backlog of about 500,000 uncollected traffic citations going back to the late 1990s.”
Ellis appointed a new Chief Judge of the Recorder’s Court, Nelly Withers, who, the complaint alleges, took “unprecedented and aggressive steps in 2010 to increase the revenue generated by the DCRC.”
The Recorder’s Court had long been a source of frustration for citizens who’ve complained about everything from endless backlogs to lost records. Many of the citations that seemed to have gone uncollected had actually been paid but were not recorded, the suit states.
Plaintiff Christina Williams said she was cited for driving an unregistered, uninsured vehicle in 2010, went to Recorder’s Court and paid her fines.
Four years later, she received notice from the court citing her for the same violations. Because she didn’t have her receipts from 2010 she was placed on probation and her license was suspended.
“I said, ‘This was already taken care of, I assure you,’” said Williams, a mother of five. “I’m a Realtor, so I actually need my license to drive and to support my family.”
Williams said it will cost her hundreds of dollars to have her license reinstated.
If the class action suit is successful, she’ll be reimbursed the fines paid to recorder’s court, along with punitive damages
Meanwhile, Ellis was convicted earlier this month on charges that he attempted to extort campaign contributions from county contractors.