By Jack Burns
Doraville, GA – A city has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit from residents who claim that they have received tickets and have even been threatened with arrest and sentenced to court-ordered probation for the crime of having a cracked driveway, chipped paint on their houses, and overgrown vegetation or improperly stacked firewood in their yards.
Hilda Brucker, a 25-year-resident of Doraville, said she was placed on criminal probation for “Rotted wood on house and chipping paint on fascia boards,” “High weeds in backyard and ivy on tree and vines on house,” and a “Driveway in a state of disrepair,” according to the lawsuit against the city.
The town is being accused of setting up its own court with the city attorney acting as prosecutor and judge. Code enforcement officials, in conjunction with local law enforcement fine residents for such infractions. In essence, the town has transformed itself into a giant homeowners’ association where the only major difference is that the town has the power to place code violators in jail.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim the reason the city is comporting as judge, jury, and executioner over petty yard issues is that the town’s budget is driven largely by expected ticketing revenue. In other words, the town allegedly worked into the budget revenue spending over $3 million based solely on the prospect of being able to issue traffic citations, code violation citations, etc.
Brucker said she was forced to pay a $100 fine and was placed on a 6-month probationary prison sentence. She even had to pay her $100 to her probation officer, not the town of Doraville directly. Terms of her probation for the violations included, “reporting to a probation officer, avoiding alcoholic intoxication, and cooperating with code enforcement upon request.”
If the allegations are true, a citizen’s constitutional rights have been infringed upon solely because her home and yard were displeasing to a town official. Now, the city is stepping into her private life by claiming she should be limited in the amount of alcohol she can drink, and if she breaks the terms of her probation, she could possibly face prison time.
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Plaintiff Jeffery Thornton was also charged with code enforcement violations for having a woodpile behind his home. He used the wood for campfires and for his woodworking hobby but code calls for any wood to be cut to 4x4x8-foot pile dimensions. When code enforcement officials came to his home they ticketed him for the way he kept his wood and for having a screen leaning against his home.
When Thornton failed to appear in court—he said he was never notified of the fines—an arrest warrant was issued for him. After going to the Doraville Municipal Court, he was placed on trial for his wood pile and found guilty. Thornton was then fined $1,000. After telling the judge he could not afford to pay, the judge reduced the fine to $300 and placed him on 12 months of probation. But when he still couldn’t pay, all the charges against him were dropped. His attorneys allege that the charges, the arrest warrant, the trial, the fines, and the probation were all about getting money and not about keeping anyone safe.
Even though Doraville has just over 8,000 residents, its municipal court sees 15,000 cases per year, which typically brings in revenue in excess of $3 million—$1 million from traffic tickets alone. The city criminalizes violators of its city code with misdemeanors, a fine of $1,000 and the potential of spending a year in jail. Its town attorney acts as prosecutor and judge, and the revenue brought in by fining and ticketing its residents makes up 30 percent of the city’s annual budget.
It has even been reported that Doraville’s police officers write up to 40 traffic tickets per day! And because 46 percent of the town’s budget goes to fund the police department, the plaintiffs’ attorneys allege that the town—as well as the police—have been “incentivized” to go after residents. On average, the residents reportedly pay $900 per person in fines per year. When residents cannot pay, their assets are confiscated and sold at auction by way of civil asset forfeiture.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that the police are working in conjunction with the town to bilk its residents out of their hard-earned money. They are asking the U.S. District Court to declare the city of Doraville’s budgeting practices, its court system of generating revenue, and its practice of policing for profit, unconstitutional and a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to Due Process.
They are also seeking a monetary fine of $1. If the plaintiffs win in court, Doraville will have to readjust its budget NOT to include code violations, criminal citations, fines, and traffic tickets. In other words, they just want the U.S. court to step in and put an end to the judicial and police tyranny that exists in the town. In their minds, enough is enough!
Unfortunately, practices such as the ones seen in the city of Doraville are not uncommon. An elderly couple in St. Peters, Missouri, was forced to plant turf grass on their lawn, even though the wife was allergic to it; and a man in Dallas, Texas, was threatened with fines for not mowing his grass while he was in the hospital, recovering from burns he received after a gas leak resulted in an explosion in his home.