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.
On December 16, 2020 the court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and granted the City’s motion for summary judgement.
In their first claim, the Plaintiffs contended that the City’s reliance on fines and fees created an institutional bias for the municipal court judge tasked with trying the cases. The Plaintiffs had identified three factors that, considered together, could possibly amount to a substantial conflict of interest: (1) fines and fees make up a large percentage of the City’s general fund; (2) the city council essentially sets a target of revenue for the judge to hit: and (3) the judge could be fired at will by the city council. The court found that only the first factor was supported by the evidence. The court held that merely establishing that a large proportion of revenue is from fines and fees does not itself give rise to a conflict of interest because it’s insufficient to show a “possible temptation to forsake [the judge’s] obligation of impartiality” Harper v. Prof’l Prob. Servs. Inc., 976 F.3d 1236, 1242 (11th Cir. 2020).
In their second claim, Plaintiffs challenged the City’s policy of relying on the fines and fees as unconstitutional because those fees were generated through biased enforcement. The court followed the Supreme Court’s approach in Marshall v. Jerricho, Inc.. In Marshall, the Supreme Court held that police and prosecutors are not required to be impartial in the same way as is required of a judge. 446 U.S. 238, 248 (1980). However, the Supreme Court also left open the possibility that a governmental scheme involving prosecutors or police could raise serious constitutional questions in the presence of “a personal interest, financial or otherwise, in[to] the enforcement process” or “irrelevant or impermissible factors” in the decision-making process. Id. at 250. The court here applied a totality of the circumstances analysis for the solicitor, the police, and the code enforcement personnel in turn. For each claim, the court found that there was insufficient evidence to support an institutional conflict of interest indicative of a constitutional violation and thus denied Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and granted the CIty’s motion for summary judgment. The Plaintiffs’ claims were therefore dismissed.
Plaintiffs have appealed the decision to the 11th Circuit.