The Daily Report brings word that a federal judge is allowing a lawsuit against the city of Doraville to move forward. That suit challenges the constitutionality of the city’s municipal court. Doraville uses fines from the court to fund 17 to 30% of the city’s budget, per the article.
Attorneys with the Institute of Justice in Washington, D.C., filed the suit last year on behalf of four individuals either convicted of city ordinance violations or facing conviction. The suit contends that Doraville’s municipal court is routinely flouting U.S. Supreme Court precedent by operating primarily as a revenue-generating device to keep the city government afloat.
As a result, the suit contends that city’s municipal judges are financially incentivized to convict defendants, and city police and prosecutors have a similar financial incentive to prosecute Doraville residents and passers-through.
The suit claims the Fourteenth Amendment requires that people are entitled to impartial tribunals in civil and criminal proceedings.
The lawsuit has implications for the region and the state. If the lawsuit is successful, other Georgia towns will likely find their revenue enhancement efforts via law & code enforcement under additional scrutiny.
For the Metro Atlanta region, Doraville’s reputation and actions have significant economic development implications. The town is roughly 3.6 square miles and has a population of about 10,000. But there’s also a MARTA station there next door to a big hole in the ground called “Assembly Yards“, which was until recently a General Motors plant.
While currently housing a couple of auto dealerships and a movie studio, the undeveloped portion of the site is one of the potential crown jewels in the Atlanta region’s next chapter. It was widely rumored to be on the short list of sites offered to Amazon, and remains a potential home for a flagship corporate headquarters. Quotes like the following from the same Daily Report article complicate that sales process:
Plaintiff Hilda Brucker was fined and placed on probation for six months after she was cited multiple times for chipped paint on the fascia boards of her house, weeds in her backyard, vines on the house, cracked driveway pavement, and ivy on a tree. Plaintiff Jeff Thornton was served with an arrest warrant and fined $1,000 because logs stored in his backyard were not cut in 4x4x8 sections and a screen rested against the side of his house in violation of the city code.
The standard penalty is a fine of up to $1,000 or six months in jail, according to Story’s order. Doraville’s municipal court generates more than $3 million annually—from 17-30% of the city’s total annual revenue, the order said.
If a town is willing to shake down its own residents for $1,000 and threaten jail time over firewood not being in a perfect 4x4x8 section, what would it be willing to do to a multi-national corporation who almost certainly will become the city’s largest employer and taxpayer once Assembly is completed?
There was once a town of New Rome, Ohio, that was notorious for using traffic fines to fund its budget. While this old article from Car & Driver is worth reading in its entirety, the following passage is relevant to the discussion of Doraville and its potential:
Nourse grew up in the area and has been involved in local politics for decades and remembers that in the old days the police chief was said to have gotten a six-percent cut of the ticket revenue. He also tells the story of a large corporation sending some executives to assess (neighboring municipality) Prairie Township as the location for a new plant. Driving through New Rome, a carload of executives were rousted by cops. No tickets were issued, but the township didn’t get the plant.
Now days, site selection teams don’t have to experience an attempted shake-down first hand to realize there is a problem. Federal lawsuits and the resulting media coverage tend to signal that.
And it should be noted that the town that didn’t get the plant wasn’t even New Rome. That’s why Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Sandy Springs…really all of Metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia should be paying attention to the practices of Doraville and any other municipality that is being funded largely from citations.
The State of Ohio withdrew New Rome’s incorporation in 2004. I’m in no way suggesting the same happen to Doraville, but the issue cannot be ignored either. Representatives from the State and DeKalb County need to get together on a solution.
Other cities should also be watching closely. If left unchecked, it may not be the state or county that comes up with a solution, but instead, a federal judge.