Lawsuit says Doraville budget relies too heavily on fines

Homeowner Hilda Brucker was shocked when she received the call.

The Doraville official on the other end of the phone told her a code enforcement officer had found multiple violations at her home, that the city had sent certified mail, that she’d be cited for failure to appear if she didn’t report to municipal court right away.

Though she told the official she had received no notification of the violations or the court hearing, the case moved forward. She received a $100 fine and six months of probation for failing to maintain the gravel driveway at her home.

But the case was far from over. Feeling frustrated and mistreated, Brucker was one of four people who filed suit against the city of Doraville on Wednesday arguing that their civil rights had been violated.

The suit accuses Doraville of relying too heavily on fines from code enforcement and traffic tickets to bolster its $13.5 million budget. The result, the lawsuit says, is that police officers and municipal courts are encouraged to write citations for minor violations.

“I was convicted of the crime of having a cracked and crumbling driveway,” Brucker said during a news conference Thursday to discussion the lawsuit.

She said she hopes the lawsuit results in an end to what she called policing and code enforcement for profit. And she wants the Doraville municipal court system made more user friendly for those who find themselves appearing before one of its judges.

“Even someone who has broken a law or incurred a fine for good reason should not have to face a broken court system,” Brucker said.

Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman, City Manager Regina Williams-Gates and Police Chief John King did not return calls and emails seeking comment about the allegations in the suit.

Fines and forfeitures accounted for 19 percent of the Doraville budget during the 2017-2018 fiscal year. Nationwide, for a majority of cities of 5,000 or more, less than 1 percent of their budgets come from fees and fines.

The lawsuit says Doraville’s fines violate civil rights protections in the U.S. Constitution by creating a conflict of interest for the judges, prosecutors and police officers who are well aware of the financial impact these infractions have on the budget.

“That sort of reliance has driven it to ticket people like our clients for things like a stack of wood in their backyard,” Institute for Justice attorney Joshua House said on Thursday. “Municipal government and law enforcement exists to serve and protect, not to ticket and collect from residents and passers-through.”

Brucker hired a lawyer to fight her case back in 2016. After research, she also ended up contacting the libertarian, Koch-brothers affiliated Institute for Justice, which filed Wednesday’s suit.

Brucker also brought on board her neighbor, Jeff Thornton, who had been fined $1,000 for having a trailer and wood on his property. And she told them about Janice Craig, who had received a $215 ticket after a Doraville police officer accused her of holding up traffic while she changed lanes.

The firm later filed public record requests for city documents related to certain traffic infractions and landed a fourth client: Byron Billingsley, who received a $100 ticket for changing lanes without a signal. The lawsuit notes that these types of violations are rarely cited in other jurisdictions.

2014 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation said that Doraville collected more traffic fines per capita than any other city in metro Atlanta, earning it a reputation for being a speed trap.

2017 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights determined that among U.S. cities with populations of 5,000 or more, Doraville ranked sixth among cities that rely most heavily on fines and fees. Clarkston, Morrow and Stone Mountain were in third, fourth and fifth place. Riverdale was eighth. No other state had more municipalities in the top 10.