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Atlanta Suburb Brags About Fines for Chipped Paint and Incorrectly Stacked Wood

Victims of stealth taxes are suing Doraville, Georgia, for violating their due process rights.

Hilda Brucker & drivewayInstitute for JusticeImproperly stacked wood. A cracked driveway. Chipped paint on a porch.

These are the kinds of offenses the government of Doraville, Georgia, is using to fine residents and threaten them with jail, all in an explicit attempt to balance the budget of the 8,000-person Atlanta suburb. Now people hit by some of those fines are suing the city in federal court, arguing that its direct financial interest in convicting people tried by its municipal court violates the 14th Amendment's due process guarantee.

The lawsuit, filed by the Institute for Justice, "seeks to stop municipalities from budgeting to receive fines and fees," says I.J. attorney Josh House. "Where you have a city that uses these numbers to balance its budget, you are creating an unconstitutional incentive to use the municipal court to balance this budget."

From 2016 to 2017, Doraville pulled in about $3.5 million in fines, accounting for a quarter of the city's budget. A 2017 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found that the town ranked sixth in the nation in the percentage of its budget coming from fines.

As Reason has covered extensively, the use of fines and penalties as a source of revenue, and cops and code enforcers as shadow tax collectors, is not limited to Doraville. But House says Doraville is unusually brazen. "This is a city that is unapologetic about its use of ticketing to raise money," he says, pointing to this boast in a 2015 city government newsletter: "Averaging 15,000 cases and bringing in over $3 million annually, the court system contributes heavily to the city's bottom line."

The four plaintiffs in the case against Doraville include Hilda Brucker, who was summoned to municipal court in October 2016 by a court employee who said she had failed to appear for a hearing about code violations on her property. Brucker says she never received a warning or court summons and was never given a chance to correct the violations. She was nevertheless forced to defend herself against a city prosecutor who claimed she was guilty of three unabated violations, including a cracked driveway, overgrown weeds in her backyard, and a front porch with rotted boards and chipped paint.

Brucker was convicted of a misdemeanor and sentenced to a $100 fine and sixth months of probation. As conditions of her probation, Brucker was forced to report to a parole officer, avoid "alcoholic intoxication," and cooperate with code enforcement on request. Failure to do any of these things could result in jail time. "It's so ridiculous and ludicrous," Brucker says in an Institute for Justice video. "No one asked me to fix the driveway. This is a neighborhood of very old driveways."

Brucker's neighbor Jeff Thorton was called before Doraville's municipal court in July 2016 after being notified that an arrest warrant had been issued for a missed court date he claims he was never told about. Thornton's crime was keeping a pile of wood in his backyard that did not conform to the city's exacting requirement that logs stored outside be kept in piles four feet by four feet by eight feet.* He also was accused of having "boards, buckets, and trimmings" stacked against the side of his house.

In October 2016, Thornton was fined $1,000 for his wood pile. When Thornton protested that he could not afford the fine, his punishment was reduced to a $300 fine and 12 months of probation. When he claimed the $300 fine was still too steep, the charge was dropped entirely. "Doraville ceased its ticketing and collection efforts once it was clear that Jeff could not pay," the Institute for Justice complaint says. "Public health or safety was never the point of its enforcement action against Jeff."

The other two plaintiffs represented by the Institute for Justice are Janice Craig and Byron Billingsley, nonresidents who were stopped for traffic violations while driving through Doraville. Craig was charged with changing lanes "in a way that held up traffic," while Billingsley was accused of changing lanes without signaling.

Doraville has a reputation as a speed trap, using its location on the Atlanta beltway to ticket freeway commuters for traffic offenses. A 2014 Atlanta Constitution-Journal investigation found that Doraville was raking in the same amount from traffic fines as nearby Roswell, which had a population nearly 10 times as large. Of the $3.4 million in fines that Doraville collected from August 2016 through August 2017, the complaint notes, nearly $1 million came from citations for driving without a valid license or valid registration.

House says Doraville's ability to squeeze drivers helps explain why it relies on fines rather than tax revenue to fund basic municipal operations. "Most of the people ticketed are drivers," he says. "They're not actually residents. That means you can raise money on the backs of people who don't live in your city and don't vote for you."

The Institute for Justice argues that Doraville's practice of building ticket revenue into its budget, which encourages enforcement efforts aimed at meeting the target, violates the due process rights of the people the city fines . "When you go to court, you expect your judge to be neutral," he says. "You expect your prosecutor to not be paid as a direct consequence of convicting and fining people. That is fundamentally a due process problem."

CORRECTION: The originial version of this article said that Doraville required logs to be cut into four inch by eight inch segments. Doraville actually requires that logs be piled in four foot by four foot by eight foot piles.

Photo Credit: Institute for Justice

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  • Juice||

    "seeks to stop municipalities from budgeting to receive fines and fees,"

    That would be a pretty awesome court precedent.

  • Illocust||

    No freaking kidding. I think most of the speed trap towns would just do financial trickery to get around it, but it'd give a new weapon in the arsenal to fight back against this crap.

  • Flinch||

    Sounds like they have a dedicated 'code nazi', that has been given a quota to fill no matter what - fines for chipped paint is scraping the bottom without a doubt. Abuse of power is no joke, no matter what level of government it occurs at. And... where is DHS? Isn't this some form of terrorism? Don't tell me there's no weapons involved: sheriffs always carry a weapon when serving warrants/making arrests. All property owners in this hapless place are being held hostage by their own officials it seems to me. They should sweep it all out in a single ballot referendum: from the mayor down to the local school board, and break the fascist rot that no longer serves the public interest. Placing one good apple in a rotten barrel at a time is usually a colossal waste of time as the rot from the others spreads quickly.

  • Rich||

    Thornton's crime was keeping a pile of wood in his backyard that did not conform to the city's exacting requirement that logs be cut into squared segments four inches wide and eight inches long.

    Sounds like the right dimensions for building a gallows, were one so inclined.

  • Juice||

    Makes me wonder if some bureaucrat's relative owns a company with a machine that cuts firewood to those exact dimensions.

  • Rich||

  • Flinch||

    I'm betting that's the right size for city council to stick it where the sun don't shine. So here's a temporary fix for besieged homeowners: declare your woodpile to be an assemblage, and cry 'free speech' when they show up trying to tell you what to do with it. At no time [I mean never] refer to it as firewood, or accede to their claim trying to label it as such. So what if you burn some of it in your home - it's your art to begin with! That migration from assemblage to performance art is strictly an aesthetic exercise of course, never intended to "heat your home".

  • Dillinger||

    lamppost the mayor by his feet until he declares the fine null. 7999 peeps should be able to take care of that.

  • Rhywun||

    -1 Boss Hogg plus however many minions he has

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    I'm sure half the town is happy about it. They keep coming for the same clowns.

  • Flinch||

    A good tornado could solve alot of their problems: a disaster declaration would provide relief from the pinheads stir frying the citizens wealth on picayune items of no consequence that most wouldn't notice driving past 100 times. Just hope it bullseyes city hall while the pinheads are at "work".

  • ||

    Doraville backwards is Nilbog.

  • ||

    "Thornton's crime was keeping a pile of wood in his backyard that did not conform to the city's exacting requirement that logs be cut into squared segments four inches wide and eight inches long. He also was accused of having "boards, buckets, and trimmings" stacked against the side of his house."

    "...nonresidents who were stopped for traffic violations while driving through Doraville. Craig was charged with changing lanes "in a way that held up traffic," while Billingsley was accused of changing lanes without signaling."

    Remind me to reroute around Doraville if I'm ever in the area.

    Jesus what a bunch of assholes.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Craig was charged with changing lanes "in a way that held up traffic,"

    At least we know traffic stops don't hold up traffic in any way.

  • ||

    If you "force" a police officer to act in a way that causes harm to someone, then you are to blame for that harm rather than the cop. This is the basic reasoning behind felony murder laws being applied to people that a cop was shooting at when he missed and kills a bystander.

    So when you "force" a cop to pull you over, the cop is -- by law -- blameless for any traffic disruption.

  • creech||

    "squared segments four inches wide and eight inches long." These aren't logs, they are bricks. Never seen a woodpile with such small pieces. This is what you get when citizens don't attend the open meetings where such ordinances are discussed and voted on.

  • ||

    These aren't logs, they are bricks. Never seen a woodpile with such small pieces.

    Agreed. The wood pile conforming to the requirement would be alien. Presumably, you can't fell a tree without a maul or a splitter either, lest you wind up piling up unsplit logs that are neither the dimensions required nor even square. It's gotta be like a bugs bunny cartoon.

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Zoning board needs a twitter account.

  • Hilda||

    Ha! Mayor Donna Pittman first blocked me on Twitter and then deleted her entire Twitter account back in the fall of 2016 when I brought the first media attention to the problem of ridiculous fines. The city manager followed suit.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    God Bless the Institute for Justice!

  • Gaear Grimsrud||

    Second.

  • Nardz||

    I involuntarily spent a night in Doraville once.
    Bankrupt that bitch

  • Karl Hungus||

    Tarring and feathering needs to become a thing again.

  • Longtobefree||

    Good luck with that.
    The environmentalists would lynch you for heating the petroleum product, and PETA would lynch you for taking the feathers.

  • DatCrazyMongoose||

    Doraville City Hall's driveway via Google Maps.....

    https://tinyurl.com/y7ew4bfg

  • Tyler Durden||

    I know Doraville, it's a slum. Half the windows in the suburb are boarded over. Good luck finding a house that doesn't have chipped paint or a cracked driveway. It's not all bad - they also have the only halfway decent Chinese food in the Atlanta metro.

  • Rockabilly||

    Fuck you commie ass hats.

  • Sevo||

    IJ rocks!

  • My Dog Bites Better Than Yours||

    Kind of sounds like New Rome, Ohio .

    A wide spot in the road on the way into Columbus. It was a notorious speed trap and an insanely corrupt town council. Town population was 60, with no less than 14 police officers handing out tickets. Of course they didn't fuck with the residents, so they were able to continue on for a long time. The State of Ohio finally put them out of business in 2004.

    The moral is there is hope that sometimes the state will step in and do the right thing.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Doraville is taking a lot of shit here, but..

    Do you think the statist asshats in Congress just appear fully formed?
    There has to be minor leagues where they develop their skills.

    #Doraville the Exploraville

  • dpbisme||

    WAIT? "nearly $1 million came from citations for driving without a valid license or valid registration." Seems like the correct thing to do in this case....... Since these are valid reasons to give someone a ticket....

  • Eidde||

    Do you think those cases were fairly adjudicated, what with the perverse incentives highlighted by IJ?

  • NoVaNick||

    Small towns like this one are on the frontlines of fascism. Seriously-nannies and busybodies use them as places to test their pet cause laws because hardly anyone is paying attention, and a few years later, when they are ready to take it to a bigger city, or make it a state law, they'll simply say "look, East Buttfuckville has had this law for years, and nobody has complained..."

  • Hilda||

    This is a good point. Our city council here in Doraville got crazier and crazier with their pet-peeve ordinances. Several years back, a lot of people had to scramble because council outlawed gravel driveways and parking pads, which were common. There was no public discussion. Not long ago a councilwoman who's also a realtor introduced an ordinance to limit the colors on a house to three (base, trim, accent), despite the fact many existing houses had four colors that looked quite nice (and that dumb law almost passed). She claimed she couldn't sell houses here because of the paint colors (conflict of interest?) About the same time, a control-freak councilwoman proposed regulating the kind of planting containers we could use in the front yard -- she wanted to outlaw the practice of growing things in utilitarian black plastic nursery pots, wheelbarrows and other upcycled containers, and even those common folk-art planters made out of cut tires. People completely rebelled against the proposed flowerpot ban and the item was removed from the city council agenda without ever coming to a vote. We never know whose pet peeve is going to become the next heavy-handed law.

  • John C. Randolph||

    "cops and code enforcers as shadow tax collectors"

    I think you meant "shady".

    -jcr

  • Rat on a train||

    Maybe they tax shadows.

  • Flinch||

    Cops are tax collectors for many small towns [sadly]. I met a man decades back whose work took him from somewhere in Texas through a little fascist "utopia" in Louisiana named Golden Meadows. First time through he got a ticket for going 3mph over their rediculously low speed limit which puts most of their main road at school zone speeds. That got his goat, so next time through town, he drove 5mph under the posted speed limit - he got a ticket for that too. He'd have done better to steal Louisiana plates for safe passage, and plead force majeure if cought.

  • Longtobefree||

    So this is what happens when an HOA gets elected - - - - - - -
    Time to outlaw all HOAs; demonize them like they were the NRA.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    I heat my house with good old fossil fuels, so my only use for firewood is a bonfire, which is the perfect complement to a couple cases of beer.

    Living in a well spaced aged out woodlot gives me the opportunity to carefully position my fire ring, then drop a dead tree somewhat centered on the ring, shove all the crap that broke off the falling tree into the ring and ignite it, then slowly feed the dead tree in as it burns.

    8 inch bricks of wood is just so sterile and boring. It's no wonder all the urban and suburbanites are so crazy - what else do they have?

  • Flinch||

    A 32 hour day to comply with all this nonsense?

  • ||

    Wood is a pre-fossil fuel.

  • BBerry12||

    Seems like you could use the system to beat the system. They want to charge this petty bullshit as a criminal misdemeanor? Demand a lawyer and a jury trial. Hope for nullification. If you lose refuse to pay the fine and let them pay to keep you in jail. You can't see weeds in the back yard without violating my curtilage. No warrant? S1983 lawsuit. See if they want to bankrupt themselves.

  • Flinch||

    Even without nullification, if it costs the city 4M to collect 3M, they will have to pull back on such behavior.

  • Stevecsd||

    I have never heard of a civil infraction like these resulting in "probation". This is the administrative state run amuck! I agree with BBerry12, demand a jury trial.
    The people on the receiving end of these also need to look up what Georgia's legal requirements are for proper legal service of these charges. It sounds like several of these people never received or opened the letters for their court dates. Make them prove you were served properly.

  • Hilda||

    Interesting comment. I'm the Doraville driveway criminal responding here. I was called on the phone to go to court right then, so there was no time for any planning and I didn't even know the charge against me. However, I left court that day with the feeling something egregiously wrong had happened to me. I hired a local lawyer, who confirmed that my sentencing was illegal and unconstitutional, due to procedural violations. He actually said it was the single most botched case he'd ever handled. So, once we filed a motion to vacate the sentence, the judge really had no choice -- I'd never signed a waiver of any kind. The prosecutor then said I could stand trial. I showed up that day with a troop of supportive neighbors and a news team (reporter and cameraman). The prosecutor immediately asked for a continuance. This little dance went on every month, until the media stopped showing up for my trial. Then, in August of 2017, the prosecutor quietly dropped the charges against me. They didn't expect anyone to fight back -- least of all with a legal team and the media. By the time the local court drama was over, I'd already contacted the IJ and they were well into their legal investigation.

  • Flinch||

    Not too far from the UK, where citizens get plucked from obscurity and some bureaucrat proclaims they "didn't pay enough tax" using a formula unavailable to the public that is never fully disclosed, even to their chosen victim. Sad to see, and sounds like the city council needs an intervention for their spending problem trying to pretend they are the same as Buckhead.

  • Jerry B.||

    Around 77% of the registered voters in Doraville are Democrats.

  • BillyG||

    The report correlated data with Demographics finding high black and latino populations. Too bad it didn't analyze the political makeup of the towns. Bet they'd find high Democrat populations too.

  • Chipper Jonze||

    Doraville is a well-known speed trap, both on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and on I-285.

    "Doraville...a country speed trap in the city..."

    All but one city council person is white, in a city that is majority minority.

    http://www.doravillega.us/depa...../index.php

  • Arvid1977||

    My wife and I lived in Doraville after were married. It is a trash hole, so I'm n not surprised by this. I was once given a citation for running a red light by an officer who was driving in the opposite direction. He was so far off that he had no clue re: my proximity to the light. I paid the fine because I knew I was screwed anyway

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