Owning a home is a cornerstone of the American dream. Homeownership can feel extremely freeing and fulfilling — until it’s not.
In the sleepy suburb of Doraville, Georgia, homeowner Hilda Brucker received a call out of the blue from the municipal court threatening her with a failure to appear violation. She had never received a ticket or notice of a court date but soon discovered she faced three misdemeanor charges. Her alleged crimes included vines on her house, chipped paint, and cracks in her driveway, all of which are municipal code violations that carry hefty fines and fees to be collected by the city. After pleading guilty to the charges related to her driveway, Brucker had to cough up $100 and spend six months on probation.
It doesn’t take a criminologist to determine it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to assign a probation officer to Brucker. Her so-called crime essentially boils down to having an old driveway. No one is made safer by her being supervised. The Institute for Justice has challenged the City of Doraville on behalf of Brucker and three other Doraville residents. The case currently sits with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
Cases such as Brucker’s are what happen when cities rely on fines and fees rather than appropriately funding their budgets. They begin criminalizing the most mundane actions — regardless of whether someone had harmful intentions or not. What’s more, ticketing tactics like this usually take place in rural communities with higher poverty rates. Doraville, for example, has a poverty rate over 18 percent. Another city, Pagedale, Missouri, has a poverty rate of more than 30 percent. What local officials have been doing in Pagedale is downright shameful.
Just like Brucker, an 84-year-old Pagedale resident, Mildred Bryant, was fined for several residential violations, the most outrageous being mismatched curtains. Imagine trying to enjoy the golden years of your life and being told how to decorate your house.
Pagedale also made it a crime to have a basketball hoop or to host a barbecue in front of your house on any day that is not a national holiday. What could possibly be more American than playing ball or having a barbecue? In the same vein, what could possibly be more un-American than deploying law enforcement officers to hand out citations for doing these things?
Thankfully, the Institute for Justice challenged the City of Pagedale as well. The Institute of Justice’s research revealed that a whopping 39 percent of adults had received tickets for residential violations. The case resulted in a consent decree with the local court, meaning the city will drop most pending cases and can no longer harass its citizens over harmless actions. This is a big step forward for reducing over-criminalization and improving law enforcement-community relations.
Cities should not task law enforcement with filling budget shortfalls through ticketing. This complicates an officer’s ability achieve the goals of community policing and compromises the public’s ability to trust those who work to make them feel safe. “The goal of community policing is the absence of crime and disorder, not the number of tickets issued or arrests made,” says Randy Petersen, a retired police officer who works as a researcher for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
Unfortunately, as seen in Doraville, Georgia, residents are uncomfortable with current citation tactics that officers have been asked to carry out. “Even before this happened to me I would see code enforcement officers skulking around people’s front yard, taking pictures,” said Hilda Brucker. Residents should be relieved to see law enforcement officers, not nervous.
Lawmakers should manage budgetary appropriations on the front end, rather than taking it out on individuals through fines and fees on the backend.
This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on June 21, 2018.