Doraville back in court over allegedly padding budget with fines, fees

Doraville

Credit: City of Doraville

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Doraville

Credit: City of Doraville

The appeal hearing continues a case that’s languished in court for more than three years

A federal judge will once again decide if Doraville improperly relies on fines and fees to balance its budget.

Four Georgians appealed a federal court ruling that found Doraville’s municipal fining practices were not illegal. Traffic tickets and code enforcement fines have funded significant portions of the city’s annual budget — in some years as much as a third of general fund revenue has come from fines and fees, the appellants argue.

The four individuals are represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian advocacy organization, and its attorney Joshua House. He argues the city’s reliance on municipal fines illegally motivates cops and judges to overcharge and over prosecute.

“When a defendant enters Doraville’s court, he sees a court that must convict him in order to balance the city’s budget,” House said during a Dec. 16 appeal hearing. “That defendant does not receive due process in Doraville’s court.”

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House told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that cops and judges could be fired if they don’t bring the city enough money, and that possibility creates a conflict of interest. The city disputes that its employees are under the gun to bring in revenue.

“The city is confident that the court will side with us once again as they have previously,” a city spokesman said in a statement regarding the appeal.

‘Don’t violate the law’

Jeffrey Thornton, Janice Craig, Hilda Brucker and Byron Billingsley were all cited between 2015 and 2017 for various incidents in Doraville. Thornton and Brucker were charged with code enforcement violations, while Craig and Billingsley received traffic citations.

All four eventually pleaded no contest or guilty and were ordered to pay fines varying from $100 to $300.

In 2018, they filed a lawsuit claiming the city’s fining habits were out of control. In December 2020, U.S. District Judge Richard Story ruled in the city’s favor. (Story continues below timeline.)

  • July 2015

    Jeffrey Thornton was cited for having a trailer parked on his grass and logs in his backyard. He was found guilty and received a $300 fine, which was later dropped since Thornton was not able to pay the fine.

  • September 2016

    Janice Craig received a traffic ticket after being accused of improperly changing lanes and holding up traffic. Craig, who isn’t a Doraville resident, pleaded guilty and received a $215 fine.

  • October 2016

    Hilda Brucker received citations for rotted wood and chipped paint on her house, weeds and overgrown vegetation in her yard and a crumbling driveway. She ultimately pleaded no contest to a charge and received a $100 fine and six months of probation.

  • July 2017

    Byron Billingsley received a traffic ticket after being accused of improperly changing lanes to get around a large truck. Billingsley, who worked in Doraville at the time, pleaded guilty to a $100 fine.

  • May 2018

    Plaintiffs filed their two-count complaint for declaratory injunctive relief and for nominal damages.

  • April 2019

    A federal judge denied Doraville’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

  • December 2020

    The district court granted the city’s motion for summary judgment and denied the plaintiff’s motion.

  • January 2021

    Plaintiffs filed their notice of appeal.

  • December 2021

    They appeared in court to argue their case. Their attorney Joshua House said he expects the court to release their ruling next spring.

House said Story’s ruling doesn’t match legal precedent, and no one needs to lose a job to prove his case.

“Doraville says, ‘Well look, there’s no evidence that we ever fired a judge because he didn’t bring in enough money,’” House said in a phone interview. “And our argument is that you don’t have to wait for Doraville to actually do that horrible thing...” House said in a phone interview.

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Harvey Gray, the attorney representing Doraville, said the case should never have gotten this far, let alone to the appeal stage.

He said the four plaintiffs should have appealed their individual cases if they felt they weren’t being given due process.

“The only irreparable injury that the two traffic court case plaintiffs (Craig and Billingsley) said is we might drive through Doraville again, and we’re scared we’re going to get a ticket,” Gray said Dec. 16 in court. “Well, the answer is don’t violate the law.”

‘A healthy profit’

House argued in court that municipal fees are crucial for Doraville to balance its budget.

In 2010, about 35% of the city’s general revenue came from municipal fees. Since 2015, that figure has steadily decreased, and it has dropped below 10% since 2020. House said fines and fees comprise just 1.4% of the average American city’s revenue.

Doraville funding from traffic tickets
Doraville gets an unusually large percentage of revenue from traffic tickets, but that number has declined as it has fended off lawsuits. The 2021 budget figure is a budget estimate, while the other figures consist of actual revenue generated by fines and fees.
SOURCE: City of Doraville

Both House and the city said the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a factor in the recent dip, but House added the decline could be a result from the lawsuit. The city’s statement primarily attributed the decline to an increase in population.

“Over the last four years, fines and fees have made up a decreasing portion of our budget thanks to explosive growth throughout the city and improved compliance with our laws,” the city’s statement said. “Our population has shot up 27% since 2010 and new businesses are moving in every month.”

House said the city can resolve its alleged conflict of interest by either relying less on fees to balance its budget or providing judges with more job security, such as lifetime tenure or making them elected officials.

Councilman Andy Yeoman told the AJC in an email that the City Council is not dictating how judges rule on their cases.

“The issue this libertarian organization is trying to resolve in the federal court is: are municipal judges agents of city councils,” Yeoman’s email said. “This issue as it relates to Doraville is absurd, as the prior judge served for 28 years through nearly three decades of different councils. Two of the current judges I’ve never met or spoken to.”

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He added that this lawsuit won’t lead to any meaningful code enforcement reform, which he said is needed in many cities.

“This lawsuit is a distraction to genuine reforms and progressive changes,” Yeoman said.

House said he expects a ruling on the appeal sometime in spring 2022.

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