Jeff Thornton had a “disorganized” woodpile in his back yard in the town of Doraville, Georgia, and officials wanted to fine him $1,000.
Hilda Brucker was confronted by city officials unhappy with cracks in her driveway. They hadn’t told her it was a problem, they just called her in, fined her and sentenced her to six months of probation.
And visitor Janice Craig, unfamiliar with the local streets, found herself in a turn lane.
“She braked, signaled and waited for an opening to merge into the right lane,” a legal team reports.
She was fined $215 for blocking traffic.
IJ found, for example, the town receives from 17 to 30 percent of its annual budget from fines. Doraville even bragged it averages “nearly 15,000 cases” and brings in more than $3 million a year from its court system, which “contributes heavily to the city’s bottom line.”
The city ranks sixth in the country for the amount of fines, fees and forfeiture revenues it takes every year, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
IJ believes that’s not right.
“Instead of raising taxes or cutting spending, Doraville balances the budget through turning more and more people into convicted criminals,” the organization said.
“The more a city depends on fines to balance its budget, the more it needs to fine people to balance its budget. Doraville’s entire justice system is unconstitutionally biased because it is policing for profit,” said Anthony Sanders, senior attorney for IJ.
The legal team says the plaintiffs had to defend themselves against a city that depends on convicting people to balance its books, despite the fact the Supreme Court “has long held that any ‘possible temptation’ like this violates due process.”
The complaint explained:
The complaint is on behalf of Hilda Brucker, Jeffery Thornton, Janice Craig and Byron Billingsley.
It challenges the constitutionality of the practice of profiting through fines.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that municipal courts cannot have, or appear to have, an independent interest, such as a financial interest, in obtaining convictions,” the case explains. “The U.S. Supreme Court has also stated that the government violates a defendant’s constitutional rights when prosecutors and law enforcement have a financial interest in convicting the defendant.”
That means cities can’t use courts “to generate revenue.”
In Doraville, the complaint charges, court personnel who are appointed by the city council have a financial incentive to obtain convictions and fines.
The fairness of the system is questionable, since the city attorney, who acts as criminal prosecutor, also is authorized to act as the municipal court judge.
The more than three tickets the city issues, every hour, day and night, all year long isn’t small change, either.
Between August 2016 and August 2017, Doraville’s municipal court assessed approximately $3.84 million in fines against defendants.
The city’s actions violate due process and the 14th Amendment, contends the complaint, which asks for a declaration that the system be changed or shut down.