Judge: Lawsuit against Doraville over tickets, fees can continue

A lawsuit accusing the city of Doraville of using excessive fines and fees to pad its budget will be allowed to proceed, although a judge's ruling pointed out the ground-breaking nature of the case.

Two Doraville homeowners charged with code violations and two commuters who received traffic tickets are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed a year ago. Their argument is that the city’s police officers and municipal courts feel pressure to write citations for minor violations and that its processes violate due process and other civil rights for those charged with infractions.

The Koch brothers-affiliated Institute for Justice, a libertarian advocacy organization, is financing the lawsuit. On Monday, the group celebrated when U.S. District Judge Richard Story denied Doraville's motion to have the case dismissed.

“Police are supposed to serve and protect, not ticket to collect,” Josh House, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, said in a news release. “Yet, that’s exactly what they are doing in Doraville. Today’s decision means that our clients will get their day in court to challenge the city’s illegal ticketing scheme.”

Doraville, a city of about 8,330 residents, had a budget of $13.5 million. Fines and forfeitures accounted for between 17% to 30% of the revenue during any given year, Story wrote in his ruling. For most cities with 5,000 residents or more, less than 1% of their budgets come from fees and fines.

A 2014 story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed Doraville’s reputation as a speed trap and found that the city collected more traffic fines per capita than any other in metro Atlanta. The city ranks sixth among U.S. towns with 5,000 residents or more when it comes to the percentage of total revenue that comes from fines, fees and forfeitures, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Doraville City Manager Regina Williams-Gates said the city believes the lawsuit is based on a false perception.

“The City is not motivated; nor do we, issue citations in order to bring revenue into our city,” she said in an email. “To the contrary, our approach to property maintenance is to work with property owners to gain voluntary compliance. When compliance does not happen, we have no choice but to issue citations. Unfortunately, it is a mere fact that laws without enforcement are ineffective.”

Story's ruling did leave some room for him to reconsider the city's motion to have the case dismissed. He pointed out the lack of legal precedent surrounding the central question of whether cases like this belong in his courtroom.

Federal courts have not had much experience weighing in whether it is constitutional for municipal courts and law enforcement agencies to make decisions motivated by finances, the judge wrote. He scheduled a June hearing to hear more arguments on this point.