More and more municipalities are now using fine money as a revenue source.
The city of Doraville, Georgia, issued a warrant for Jeff Thornton’s arrest and fined him $1,000. Thornton’s “crime”? He stacked his firewood the wrong way in his backyard.
Thornton eventually went to court and pleaded the fine down to $300. Nevertheless, they still placed him on probation for 12 months, as the Institute for Justice (IOJ) reported. Furthermore, Thornton was one of many Doraville residents that the city hit with fines in their “policing for profit” scheme, the IOJ alleged.
Doraville code requires firewood to be neatly stacked in four by eight piles. In addition, any deviation can lead to a ticket and a fine. The municipality cited Thornton, but he did not realize he had violated the code until the city issued an arrest warrant for him.
Doraville’s courts and law enforcement exist primarily to collect fine money and to finance the city government. A lawsuit filed by the IOJ has alleged this disturbing fact. The city of Doraville is a suburb of Atlanta. The municipality raked in $3.4 million in fine money between August 2016 and August 2017, Reason reported. The IOJ estimated that fine money makes up between a fifth and a third of Doraville’s budget.
“Doraville’s city council heavily relies on these revenues to balance the city’s budget,” the IOJ stated. The firm detailed this fact in a lawsuit they filed in federal court.
Law Enforcement Personnel
“Moreover, Doraville law enforcement personnel—who are paid from Doraville’s revenues and serve at the ultimate pleasure of its City Council—have an incentive to ticket and prosecute to raise revenue,” The IOJ complaint states.
Disturbingly, the fine Thornton received was not issued by a city official. Instead, a private company hired by the city delivered the penalty, the Institute’s lawsuit alleges. Both the contractors and city employees, such as police officers, have a strong incentive to write tickets and charge fines. This is simply because the fine money helps cover their salaries, the IOJ maintained.
Six Months’ Probation For High Weeds
Thornton was one of many Doraville residents that the city fined to raise revenue, the IOJ claimed. Another victim was Hilda Bruckler, whom the municipal court sentenced to six months of probation for: (1) “Rotted wood on house and chipping paint on fascia boards”, (2) “High weeds in backyard and ivy on tree and vines on house”, and (3) “Driveway in a state of disrepair.”
“Driveway in disrepair” apparently means there were some cracks in Bruckler’s driveway. Under the terms of the probation, Bruckler could not drink any alcohol whatsoever and had to report to a probation officer.
Bruckler had to take out a home equity loan in order to fix the driveway and siding. She also hired a lawyer with her own money to fight the city’s actions.
The IOJ contends that Doraville is violating the 14thAmendment’s guarantee of due process by relying on fines for revenue. The hope is to get a court injunction against the city and to force it to find a new source of revenues.
The IOJ has been successful in similar lawsuits against other municipalities including Pagedale, Missouri, and Charlestown, Indiana. The Institute for Justice is a public interest law firm that often sues governments over alleged violations of property rights.