Hilda Brucker was cited for chipped paint and a crumbling driveway in Doraville and ended up on probation. Then she fought back. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC
Photo: Bill Torpy / AJC

Torpy at Large: Challenging Doraville’s ticket to riches a fine thing

Last week, a federal judge decided there might be something to the allegations that Doraville is a ticket trap.

My first reaction was, “Yeah, duh!”

But then I felt some grudging respect: Man, those rascals are still at it.

A lawsuit filed last year by some motorists and Doraville homeowners accused the city of funding itself on the backs of those snared in its municipal courts. The lawsuit alleges that the city’s annual budget is funded by tickets to the tune of 17 percent up to 3o percent, depending on the year.

By comparison, Roswell ticket fine revenue is about 2 percent of the budget. And neighboring Chamblee, which doesn’t mind hitting you with a Mickey Mouse ticket — such as for a non-functioning tag light (personal knowledge) — gets about 6 percent of its revenue from fines.

The fact that Doraville uses its police — and also its code enforcement officers — as tax collectors is nothing new to anyone who spots Doraville squad cars lurking along the side of I-285, a tried-and-true way of forcing non-residents to fund city operations.

In 1999 — a generation ago! — I wrote a story describing how Doraville was a ticket-writing machine, pulling in more than $4.2 million in fines and fees in 1997, affording the city a $1.7 million surplus that year. Doraville was more than six times as aggressive as the average Georgia burg, we found.

In 2014, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revisited Doraville and found it was still up to its old tricks. The story noted that Doraville, with 10,600 residents, brought in nearly $9 million in traffic fines between 2008 and 2012.

Roswell also pulled in $9 million in fines during that time. But it has 94,000 residents.

To be fair, it’s not just in sheer numbers of people that those two cities are poles apart. One has plenty of commerce and lots of well-off folks who can pay healthy property tax bills. The other is Doraville, which has spent a decade trying to fill in the empty spaces left by the long-closed General Motors plant.

Now, the judge who is hearing the federal lawsuit — Richard Story — didn’t say that Doraville is a ticket mill. In turning down Doraville’s attempt to get him to toss the case, the judge said that the city’s enforcement looks like a duck, but those bringing the lawsuit still must prove that it quacks like one.

Judge Story wrote in his ruling that Doraville “has as much to gain (if not more) from citizens violating these ordinances as it does from everyone adhering to them.”

Also, he noted that municipal judges must stay on the good side of city council members, who have “an obvious incentive to maximize revenue from the municipal court.”

In fact, “the city’s police department and city attorney’s office, like the municipal court, are dependent on revenues from fines, fees and forfeitures, and Doraville’s law enforcement personnel, much like its municipal judges, are subject to the partisan influences of its city council, which is free to de-fund those offices, should it choose,” the judge wrote.

The Doraville city limits sign on Buford Highway warns of traffic enforcement. A 2014 analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed the cities and counties that profit most from traffic tickets. Doraville representatives said they have fair policing practices and aren’t overzealous about traffic enforcement. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Joshua House, the Institute of Justice attorney who is waging the lawsuit and must prove those allegations, said Doraville’s “municipal court functions as a machine, set up to churn people through, getting them to plead guilty and providing revenue.”

The rise of such money-generating machines has “exploded over the last couple of decades, where you find cities using the criminality of its citizens to fund services,” House said.

And such fines are often regressive, House said, meaning those who pay the freight are those who can least afford it. The city’s median income, $47,122, is $3,000 less than the state’s median income. Doraville is 57 percent Hispanic, 17 percent white, 13 percent Asian and 9 percent black.

The four plaintiff’s in this litigation are white.

Hilda Brucker, a longtime Doraville resident, got the lawsuit rolling after calling the Institute of Justice to complain that she ended up with a criminal record just because her house and driveway needed some TLC.

In 2016, she received a phone call from the city saying she had been cited for chipping paint on fascia boards, high weeds in the backyard, ivy on the trees, vines on her house, and a “driveway in a state of disrepair.”

Doraville resident Hilda Brucker has sued the city after receiving a code enforcement ticket in 2016 because of her decaying driveway. She and three others are accusing the city of balancing its budget through the overuse of code enforcement and traffic fines. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Brucker immediately drove to court, pleaded nolo contendre, paid a $100 fine, and was sentenced to six months’ probation, during which time she had to avoid alcoholic intoxication and cooperate “with code enforcement upon request.”

Her probation officer told her to get three estimates for driveway repair. Brucker, a freelance writer, said those quotes averaged about $6,000.

“Then I got my wits together and said, ‘This is B.S.’” she said. “B.S.” is not a legal term, but it is often an apt description.

In the end, she said, “They underestimated me.”

I called Doraville’s police spokesman and the city’s spokesmen, and I was told to call the city manager. She did not return my call.

September 9, 2014 — Cpl. John Lowe of the Doraville Police Department writes a speeding ticket for a driver he clocked at 51 mph in a 35 mph zone. The city of Doraville generates some of the highest revenues from traffic tickets of any jurisdiction in metro Atlanta. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Bob Roche, a former Doraville City Council member, said the council was largely beholden to the police force, which eats up almost half of the budget. (The 2014 story found that among Georgia cities, Doraville was second-highest in the percentage of its budget spent on the police.)

“It’s a monster. It grows and has to feed itself,” said Roche, who left the council in 2012. “It’s all about revenue. The whole thing is like being a good earner. It’s like ‘The Sopranos.’”

In “The Sopranos,” good earners are highly favored, just as they are in any industry, whether it be a law firm, a shoe store or a newspaper’s advertising department.

Proof of such a scheme may be hard to find, Roche said, adding, “I’m sure it’s not in any paperwork.”

The lawyers will have to collect financial statements, emails and administrative directives, plus do lots of depositions to prove Doraville is a willful ticket trap.

And perhaps the city is backing off. Financial audits show the city failed to reach its budgeted fine revenue in each of the past three years, falling nearly $500,000 short in 2018, at $2,051,582.

In fact, that same audit showed there might be repercussions. The city increased its millage rate more than 10 percent that year. It said it wanted to “diversify the revenue stream.”

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