Walking down Hilda Brucker’s driveway can be a bit of a challenge, but she never thought it was a problem that would lead to citations, fines and even probation.
“I was telecommuting that day and my phone rang and a code enforcement officer told me I had to come to the courthouse right then,” she recalled of a phone call in 2016.
She says she was told she’d missed a court date for a codes citation so she needed to simply clear the tickets. She was cited for having chipped paint on the side of her house and having a small patch of weeds in her yard.
“Once I got there they put me in front of a prosecutor and a judge and they just kind of started screaming all these things and they fined me $100 and sentenced me to six months criminal probation,” Brucker said. “They put me in a room with a probation officer. For the condition of my driveway,” she said
Brucker said a judge threw out the citations for the paint and weeds, but pushed forward the driveway complaint.
“They have a code enforcement vendor who drives around looking for problems, and that’s really the whole nature of policing for profit, looking for minor things to fine people for.”
Brucker realized she wasn’t alone when she says her neighbor was fined $1,000 and was given one year of probation for having his firewood stacked improperly on his property.
Brucker, her neighbor and two other residents are suing the City of Doraville for violating due process rights and policing for profits.
"You have a court that is biased from day one because they know that revenue will only come if you're convicted," says Joshua House, an attorney for The Institute for Justice, which is handling the case. "Our lawsuit alleges that that incentive to convict is unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process."
Fines are the city's second-highest money-maker every year, after taxes, which bring in the large majority of funds.
Doraville Revenues from Fines and Forfeitures: 2015: $2,755,004 2016: $2,163,342 2017: $1,959,152 2018: $2,525,000 2019: $2,000,000 (proposed)Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman said in a written statement: "The Doraville budget for this fiscal year -- 2018 is $13.5 million, of which the major source of revenue is taxes at 69 percent. The percent of the court revenue is $2.5 million which is 18 percent. The 2019 Proposed Budget which is $15.1 million, projects court revenue at $2.0 million which is 13 percent of the City Proposed Budget.
In both the Police Department and Code Enforcement Division of Community Development, there is no responsibility for revenue collection and the focus is on progressive compliance -- citations being a last resort."House says the system isn't designed for justice but to build revenue.
"Doraville is different because of the extent to which it relies on fines and fees," House said. "Doraville has a system where if everyone started obeying the law tomorrow, the city would lose almost a quarter of its revenue. That's not the way to run a city. It shouldn't be that you have to go find criminals in order to fund your city."
Doraville is ranked 6th in the nation for cities that have targeted fines according to the September 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
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