Georgia city sued by fed-up residents over 'ridiculous' fines for chipped paint, driveway cracks

Hilda Brucker went down to the municipal court in October 2016 after receiving a phone call. She hadn’t received a formal summons or known of any wrongdoing; instead, she thought she needed to clear a ticket.

But when she arrived at the Doraville, Georgia, courthouse, Brucker said she was placed before a judge and prosecutor who accused her of violating city code -- because of cracks in her driveway.

She was fined $100 and sentenced to six months criminal probation, even though this was the first time she was made aware her driveway was considered a problem.

Eventually the charges were dropped, but Brucker said Doraville “went too far” in going after her for the driveway’s appearance.

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Hilda Brucker said her experience in court over cracks in her driveway was "horrifying."  (Institute for Justice)

“It was just absolutely horrifying for someone like me who never even had a detention in high school,” Brucker told Fox News on Wednesday.

Brucker is part of an Institute for Justice (IJ) lawsuit against Doraville, a town of about 10,000 people just northeast of Atlanta. The lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Doraville “using its law enforcement and municipal court system for revenue generation.” 

The suit takes aim at the government's rampant fines over seemingly minor code infractions. About 25 percent of Doraville’s operating budget is reliant on fees and fines, according to IJ, a nonprofit law firm. From August 2016 to August 2017, it raked in about $3.8 million in fines, according to IJ's lawsuit. 

“It’s unconstitutional because it creates a financial incentive for the city government … to ticket people,” Josh House, an IJ attorney on the case, told Fox News. He said people in the town were being “punished” for the condition of their property by having to “fund the Doraville city government.”

The lawsuit also contends that "prosecutors and law enforcement have a financial interest in convicting the defendant," as they have an "incentive" to ticket and prosecute because they are paid from Doraville's revenue.

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Jeff Thornton was fined $1,000 and threatened with an arrest warrant because he had a "disorganized" pile of wood in his backyard.  (Institute for Justice)

Brucker isn’t the only Doraville citizen to fall “victim” to its fees. Jeff Thornton, a neighbor, was fined $1,000 and threatened with an arrest warrant because he had a “disorganized” pile of wood in his backyard, according to IJ. Thornton told the nonprofit that he used the wood for cooking or building birdhouses.

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The fine and charges against Thornton were also eventually dropped. But, the lawsuit said, he "lives under the threat of being ticketed again by Doraville code enforcement and law enforcement and convicted by Doraville's municipal court personnel."

Aside from residents, drivers passing through Doraville -- many on their way to or from Atlanta -- have also faced excessive ticketing, according to IJ. Janice Craig was given a $215 ticket for holding up traffic when she attempted to switch lanes while driving through town.

A 2014 Atlanta Journal-Constitution report called Doraville one of the "most aggressive police forces" in Georgia when it comes to traffic tickets. The newspaper reported the city collects more fines per capita than anywhere else in the metro Atlanta area. 

“Every city is unique,” Shawn Gillen, then the city manager, told the Journal-Constitution. “It’s probably very difficult to do comparisons. But we feel our level of traffic enforcement is extremely reasonable relative to the traffic counts that we have.”

A spokesperson for Doraville did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

“Am I going to cross the border into this town and be subject to a rapacious law enforcement? Is driving through Doraville something I can afford today?”

- Institute for Justice Attorney Josh House

Doraville’s policies “place a huge burden on not only the homeowners but those who are in the area driving and have to think about, ‘Am I going to cross the border into this town and be subject to a rapacious law enforcement?’” House said. “Is driving through Doraville something I can afford today?”

Doraville ranks sixth in the nation for the amount of revenue it brings in from fines and fees as a proportion of its total revenue, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. That study also said, as of 2012, the median income was $43,311 and more than 30 percent of the population lived in poverty. 

Brucker, a freelance writer, said most of the citizens in the town are working-class or single women, such as herself.

House said he hopes the town of Doraville will change its policy, but said a lawsuit may be necessary for that to happen.  

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“I didn’t want it to happen to me again, and I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else either,” Brucker said of the lawsuit.

Aside from her driveway, Brucker also said the prosecutor tried to nail her for some chipped paint near a water drain on her house and a small patch of what appeared to be weeds in her yard. The prosecutor brought photos of the supposed neglect to her house to the judge, but those complaints were dismissed, she said. 

In a video for IJ, Brucker called the actions taken against her "ridiculous and ludicrous." 

"No one ever asked me to fix the driveway. This is a very old driveway," she said. "Who does that?"

Nearly two years after she was brought before a judge for the condition of her driveway, Brucker said it remains unchanged.

Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a Reporter for Fox News. Follow her on Twitter @K_Schallhorn.