Activists Summon Judge to Consider Income-Based Traffic Fines
(APN) ATLANTA — The Chief Judge of Atlanta’s Municipal Court had a surprise waiting for him when he arrived at work on July 09, 2015. It was a nine foot-tall summons.
Members of Southerners On New Ground (SONG) were at the courthouse that morning with the oversized summons to greet Judge Christopher Ward and charge him with “failure to appear before the people.”
The group had previously asked Judge Ward to meet with them regarding the increase in projected municipal court revenue included in Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget, which the City Council passed on June 24, 2015.
The City plans to raise an extra seven million dollars from increased traffic fines and fees.
To be sure, enforcement of traffic rules is important, especially in promoting safe, environmentally-friendly alternatives to driving, such as walking and bicycling.
However, relying on traffic tickets as a substantial, ongoing local revenue stream, creates a conundrum: that is, when the revenue keeps flowing in, it means deterrence isn’t working.
SONG is criticizing City officials for “relying on Municipal courts to generate revenue at the expense of communities that are being over-policed and surveilled: Black, immigrant, working class and poor communities.”
“It doesn’t take a heinous crime to get mixed up in the criminal justice system. Making the wrong left turn accidentally, or not being able to afford an emissions test or your registration fee, and then getting racially profiled and pulled over: these are the ways in which people are pushed into the prison industrial complex,” Mary Hooks, and organizer for SONG, told Atlanta Progressive News.
SONG proposes that fines be income-based in order to make the system more equitable while still holding drivers accountable to being safe.
“For someone who can afford a 400 dollar ticket and it’s nothing, that doesn’t deter them from driving recklessly,” Hooks noted.
Once SONG got Judge Ward’s attention with the giant summons, he agreed to meet with members of the group.
That meeting took place on July 14, 2015. Hooks and others presented him with the idea of income-based fines, as well as other recommendations.
“Even though this proposal [to raise traffic fines] was made by City officials, when people have their day in court, it’s the judges who makes the decisions that bring in that seven million dollars,” Hooks said.
SONG also wants to see more municipal court judges mandate community service instead of fines. Not just any community service, though; Hooks emphasized they are talking about dignified community service.
As it stands, community service can entail anything from picking up trash on the highway, to washing police cars, and even doing clerical work in the understaffed municipal court itself.
At the same time, many places where people request to do their service–like hospitals, churches, and schools–are off limits.
“We need to take that time and that capacity and put it into the communities that so desperately need it. You should be able to do your community service and actually help improve the community you live in,” Hook said.
Among SONG’s concerns are “failure to appear” warrants. That is how many people end up with a revoked driver’s license, additional fines, and even jail time from minor infractions like having a busted tail light, according to the organization.
A lot of people miss their court date because they can’t get off work or secure childcare, or for any number of other legitimate reasons, Hooks said.
That was the case for Kevin Thompson who, as APN previously reported, sued DeKalb County for effectively operating a debtor’s prison through its Recorders Court.
Hooks said the initial meeting with Judge Ward went well and that he agreed to meet again with more stakeholders present.
Income based fines are a decent idea, but a judge cannot implement such a plan. It has to come from the legislature. Then there is the larger issue regarding the purpose of police work. Should policing be oriented toward generating revenues or promoting safety? If it is focused on generating revenues, how far can that goal be pushed before policing becomes a threat to public safety?
Atlanta, Georgia – Thursday, July 23rd, 2015
In 2011, Atlanta City Council passed an ordinance proposed by Mayor Kasim Reed, increasing the retirement contribution required from City employees by 5 percent. Atlanta employees objected that this action was in violation of long-established legal protections against impairment of contracts. In 2013 a group of city employees, including labor representatives, sought the enforcement of their retirement contracts by the courts. In 2014, the Superior Court in Fulton County ruled in favor of the City and the employees appealed Georgia’s Supreme Court, which heard the case in May and is expected to rule by year’s end.
At each step of the litigation, Mayor Reed has made explicit statements that firefighters and police officers will not receive any pay raises, unless and until they withdraw their lawsuit. On Monday, the administration proposed, and the council passed, a pay raise for general employees, but specifically excluded firefighters and police. Afterward the mayor reiterated to local media that the reason firefighters and police were not getting raises was because they refuse to withdraw the law suit.
These punitive actions by the mayor against firefighters and police officers violate federal and state laws designed to protect employees from retaliation for seeking redress in the courts. For instance, Georgia law O.C.G.A. § 45-1-4 says, in part “No public employer shall retaliate against a public employee for objecting to, or refusing to participate in, any activity, policy, or practice of the public employer that the public employee has reasonable cause to believe is in violation of or noncompliance with a law, rule, or regulation.”
Reed’s latest statements continue a pattern of insulting and belligerent behavior from the mayor against public safety professionals in Atlanta, the result of which have been unprecedented rates of attrition in the fire and police departments. For instance, addressing representatives of Atlanta’s firefighters and police, Mayor Reed infamously said, “You’re not going to rob the train and shoot the conductor in the head at the same time, and that’s what you’re trying to do here.”
Atlanta Professional Fire Fighters Association president Stephen Borders commented, “All Americans are entitled to their day in court, and there is no exception for the men and women who protect the public. For this mayor to continue to retaliate against firefighters and police for seeking the protection of the courts is shameful and, we believe, unlawful. We will continue to stand up for our members’ constitutional and legal rights as we are obligated to do”.