Judge Brian Ross (left) presides over the Georgia State Court’s Traffic Division in Decatur recently. A $7 million decline in traffic ticket revenue for Dekalb County comes after the county changed how it handles citations, moving jurisdiction to state court, which has allowed traffic violators to pay much less for tickets. (JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL)
Photo: Jonathan Phillips
Photo: Jonathan Phillips

DeKalb traffic fines decline after court abolished

For years, DeKalb County’s old court system gouged drivers with high traffic fines, frequent surcharges and other fees that added millions of dollars to the government’s income.

Traffic tickets were more expensive in DeKalb than in neighboring counties and cities. Each citation came with an automatic $25 fee for “court costs.” When residents couldn’t afford their fines, they faced the threat of jail time.

A lawsuit questioned whether the court even had legal authority over traffic offenses, residents complained about exorbitant fines and attorneys said it created a “debtors’ prison” by jailing those who couldn’t pay. The problems confronting the money-making — and possibly illegal — DeKalb Recorders Court led to its abolition by Georgia lawmakers last year.

The impact of the change was immediate.

Drivers now pay less for traffic infractions, and DeKalb recently projected it will lose as much as $7 million annually from the reforms, resulting in more money kept in the hands of residents.

The average amount collected from each ticket plunged from a high of $159 in 2013 to about $100 or less in 2015, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s analysis of estimates of revenue generated from citations.

“The fines were high and not consistent with what folks were paying for committing similar traffic offenses even within the county in its municipalities,” said DeKalb Solicitor-General Sherry Boston, whose office prosecutes traffic cases.

A defense attorney who sued over the legality of Recorders Court, Troy Hendrick, said the court was imposing excessive fines and jail sentences through judges appointed by county commissioners rather than elected by the people, as other judges are in Georgia.

“Courts are supposed to be dispensing justice, period,” Hendrick said. “One way that is done is through levying fines as deterrents for people not to break the law, but the fines should not be levied for the purpose of collecting revenue for a government organization.”

The deconstruction of DeKalb Recorder’s Court gained traction in November 2014, when the DeKalb District Attorney’s Office abruptly stopped prosecuting traffic cases after a hearing over Hendrick’s lawsuit. Hendrick argued that neither state law nor the Georgia Constitution allowed the district attorney to handle misdemeanor cases in Recorders Court, while the court’s defenders said the county commission had authorized the prosecutors.

A separate federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union accused Recorders Court of improperly jailing poor people who couldn’t afford misdemeanor probation plans, resulting in the county agreeing to pay a $70,000 settlement in March. The ACLU represented a 19-year-old whom a Recorders Court judge sent to jail because he couldn’t pay $838 for fines and fees during 30 days on probation.

“They prioritized the collection of fines and fees over ensuring that poor people’s rights were being protected,” said ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury. “Courts are established as an integral part of the American system of governance to administer justice and accountability. They shouldn’t be revenue generators.”

Concerns raised by the lawsuits about the court’s legitimacy and operations led the Georgia General Assembly to eliminate Recorders Court, replacing it with the new Traffic Division of State Court. The Traffic Division will process more than 120,000 citations a year and operate out of the same building near Memorial Drive, but with an overhauled system of administering justice.

Residents are now given up to six weeks to pay off fines; they can work off fines through community service at a rate of $8 an hour; and private probation services are no longer used, with all supervision taken on by DeKalb State Court probation.

“I think our State Court has softer hearts for the people,” said Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May. “Their fine schedule is a little less harsh in State Court than it was.”

Defendants in court this week didn’t notice the changes — after all, most drivers get ticketed rarely and have limited experience with traffic court.

“I haven’t seen any changes. It’s the same old story,” said Clarence Youmans, whom a judge ordered to pay $413.50 for failing to stop until traffic cleared during an October accident.

Another defendant, Erika Maldonado, said the $277 she had to pay for following too closely was a “reasonable amount,” though she was disappointed that she was found guilty based on testimony of other drivers after the officer who ticketed her didn’t appear in court.

The elimination of the $25-per-ticket court cost appears to account for much of the decrease in revenue, said State Court Clerk Melanie Wilson. The county also stopped imposing a $100 fee when defendants failed to appear in court, required lower bond amounts and ended a $75 fee in every case in which a bench warrant was issued.

“I don’t see our court as a revenue generator,” Wilson said. “We do business differently than Recorders Court did.”

Presiding Judge Brian Ross, who oversees the Traffic Division of DeKalb State Court, said citizens are benefiting from the new system even if they’re not aware of it.

“I don’t think most people would complain about it,” Ross said. “They have to be accountable and comply with the sentence, but we’re not going to lock you up for not paying a fine.”

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