In the past five years, the City of Doraville has budgeted to receive and has received, between 17- 30 percent of its revenue from fines and fees. Many of the tickets issued by the police are not for violations involving public health or safety; plaintiffs were ticketed for things such as high weeds in the backyard, wood logs, and exiting a turn lane before reaching the intersection. In some instances, the plaintiffs never received notice of their violations, and arrest warrants were issued for their failures to appear. Those who could not pay the fines imposed all at once were placed on a payment plan which included probation and fees.
Plaintiffs argue that by budgeting for revenue from fines and fees, Doraville creates a perverse incentive for the city’s police, prosecutors, and judges. They argue that the United States Constitution requires prosecutors and judges to be neutral decision makers – free of conflicts of interest – and that the same principle applies to law enforcement. When the city’s budget – including the police, prosecution and court budgets – depends on the revenue obtained from fines and fees, police, prosecutors and judges cannot be neutral. Rather, they have a strong incentive to ticket, charge and convict.
The court denied defendants’ motions to dismiss, finding that plaintiffs had standing, and the court had subject matter jurisdiction over the case. However, given the paucity of relevant case law regarding plaintiffs’ claims, the court concluded that it could not adequately evaluate whether plaintiffs’ claims were legally cognizable. It thus granted reconsideration of the motion, sua sponte, for the parties to address the proper standard of review and its application to the case.
Upon reconsideration, the court found that plaintiffs stated legally cognizable claims and denied defendants’ motion to dismiss. As to plaintiffs’ first claim, that municipal court personnel, including judges, are financially incentivized to convict defendants appearing before them, the court determined that plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to establish that there is a conflict of interest and that the conflict of interest is substantial. Both of these questions were resolved in favor of plaintiffs. As to plaintiffs’ second claim, that the City’s law enforcement personnel, including prosecutors and police officers, have a financial incentive to ticket and prosecute Doraville residents and those passing through the city, the court concluded that the conflicts here were largely the same as those facing municipal court personnel, and thus that plaintiffs adequately pled that Doraville’s municipal scheme and institutional reliance on fines, fees, and forfeitures impermissibly incentivize law enforcement personnel.
The parties are proceeding with discovery.