A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit claiming that an Atlanta suburb improperly relied on fines and fees to finance its budget.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story last week dismissed a case brought against the city of Doraville by four people represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group.
The 2018 lawsuit alleged that the DeKalb County town excessively relies on fines and fees, which make up roughly 15% of its overall revenue. Most cities that size get a far smaller share of revenue from fines and fees. Reliance on fines became a national issue after the U.S. Justice Department sued the city of Ferguson, Missouri, over its heavy reliance on fines following the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
The plaintiffs argued enforcement was driven by the need to generate revenue, not by regular law enforcement purposes. Doraville, though, argued that heavy traffic and the need to keep up property values were motivating enforcement.
Story found that the city’s municipal judge didn’t have a direct financial interest in how much the city collects in fines, and that the plaintiffs hadn’t proven that police and code enforcement officers were writing tickets for the sake of driving up revenue.
“Absent other evidence that the city’s need for revenue somehow infects its officers’ policing, the court is unwilling to conclude that the city’s budgetary practice renders the entirety of its law enforcement operation unconstitutional,” Story wrote.
The Institute for Justice said in a news release that it disagrees that revenue needs weren’t driving ticketing and plans to appeal the decision.
“I’m disappointed in today’s ruling but looking forward to continuing the fight on appeal,” plaintiff Hlda Bruckner said in the release. “It was a hopeful sign that the judge called out, in his written decision, how an overreliance on fines and fees distorts the justice system and creates faulty incentives.”
Bruckner was cited in October 2016 for rotted wood and chipped paint on her house, weeds and overgrown vegetation in her yard and a crumbling driveway. She pleaded no contest to one charge and received a $100 fine and six months of probation, while other counts were dropped.
Doraville provided a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution refuting the plaintiffs’ claims and hoping the judge’s ruling ends the legal battle.
“Our fines and fees are all carefully balanced to discourage property owners from allowing their properties to fall into disrepair without placing a strenuous financial burden on them,” the statement said. “This ruling ensures that we can continue to take appropriate measures to keep Doraville beautiful.”
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