Doraville asks judge to dismiss lawsuit alleging illegal fines, fees

The city of Doraville has asked a judge to throw out a lawsuit accusing the DeKalb municipality of balancing its budget by relying too heavily on code enforcement citations and other fines.

In its response to the lawsuit filed in federal court, Doraville said the four plaintiffs were all guilty of the infractions they were cited or ticketed for and have not made a case for why the city should have to change how it does business. The four people previously paid fines after being found in violation of traffic laws or code enforcement rule in municipal court.

“Plaintiffs do not allege that any of the ordinances with which they were charged or traffic laws that they were accused of violating are unconstitutional,” attorneys for the city wrote on the court filing. “They likewise do not allege that they were not guilty of the charges; that they were not provided with due process to contest the charges or appeal from the same; or that probable cause was lacking for issuance of said citations or tickets.”

Doraville’s motion to dismiss was filed on Monday, but no hearings have been scheduled on the case yet.

The four plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice. One of them, Anthony Sanders, said he believes they can make a strong case for why Doraville's practice harms residents and visitors.

“The city of Doraville is violating the Constitution by depending on people breaking the law and paying fines in order to balance its budget,” he said.

In the response filed in court, Doraville attorneys provided additional details about each of the four plaintiffs and the tickets or citations they received.

Hilda Brucker appeared in Doraville municipal court in October 2016 after code enforcement officers took note of three issues at her home: 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 one charge and agreed to a $100 fine, the city said, while the judge decided against moving forward on the other two charges.

When her lawsuit against the city was announced, Brucker said the Doraville municipal court was not transparent and often resulted in residents paying fees and fines for no good reason. Brucker also said she had no idea about the citations until a clerk told her to hurry down to court or face stiff penalties.

Other plaintiffs include Jeffrey Thornton, who received a warning from code enforcement in 2015 for having a trailer parked on his grass and logs in his backyard. Months later and after additional warnings, Thornton was cited for the logs and other debris near his home, the city said. He later was found guilty of a single violation, and received a $300 fine. A code enforcement official later agreed to drop the charge after Thornton said he could not afford to pay the fine, according to the city.

Janice Craig and Byron Billingsley joined the lawsuit after receiving traffic tickets. Craig received a $215 fine after the court found her guilty of failing to obey traffic signs or controls. Billingsley agreed to pay a $100 fine for changing a lane without using a turning signal.

All four plaintiffs said they live under the constant threat of being cited or ticketed in Doraville either as residents or visitors because of work or other business they need to carry out within city limits.

Fines and forfeitures accounted for 19 percent of Doraville's $13.5 million 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, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“There is a huge incentive in Doraville to prosecute people in order to raise revenue, and that is very different from the typical city,” Sanders said.