Federal Court Dismisses Challenge to False Alarm Fee Ordinance

A local ordinance that imposes fines against alarm companies for repeated false alarms has been upheld by a federal court in Georgia.

The suit involved an ordinance enacted in 2017 by the City of Sandy Springs that created a fee schedule for alarm companies whose customers transmitted false alarms to the police or fire departments. The ordinance went so far as to authorize the termination of responses to properties that recorded more than four false alarms in a 24-month period.

The ordinance was challenged earlier this year by the Georgia Electronic Life Safety & System Association, Inc. (GELSSA), an alarm company trade association and two alarm companies, Safecom Security Solutions, Inc. and ACom Security Company LLLP on Constitutional grounds. Named in the suit as defendants are the City of Sandy Springs, Mayor Russell Paul, City Manager John McDonough, and six members of the city council. The suit filed in US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia alleged that the ordinance violated the procedural and substantive due process rights of the alarm companies.

In a 31-page ruling handed down yesterday, US District Court Judge Amy Totenburg granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. From the decision:

  • The Ordinance’s stated purpose is to “encourage alarm owners and alarm companies to properly use and maintain the operational effectiveness of alarm systems in order to improve the reliability of alarm systems and reduce or eliminate false alarms.”
  • The Ordinance further provides that excessive false alarms burden Sandy Springs police and fire departments and waste public resources.
  • The Resolution details this burden, explaining that there were 974 false fire alarms and 9,292 false police alarm calls in 2016, costing the City roughly $657,450 and $117,943 respectively.
  • Specifically at issue in this litigation is the portion of the Ordinance that authorizes the City to impose a system of fines against alarm companies for excessive false alarms by alarm users.
  • To enforce this provision of the Ordinance, the City has designated a private entity known as “Cry Wolf Services” as the “alarm administrator,” tasked with implementing, administering, controlling, and reviewing false alarm reduction efforts.
  • Cry Wolf Services has unilateral discretion in determining whether an activated alarm qualifies as a false alarm under the Ordinance.
  • Under the Ordinance, Cry Wolf Services may impose civil penalties against alarm companies “for each false alarm to summon the police [or fire] department within any twenty-four month period . . . in amounts established by resolution of city council.”
  • The Resolution sets out the following specific civil penalty amounts:
  • Penalties against the Alarm Company for False Alarms to Summon Police or Fire Department within any twenty-four (24) month period:
    • (a) First False Alarm $25
    • (b) Second and Third False Alarm $250 each
    • (c) Fourth and over False Alarm $500
  • In addition to charging fines for false alarms, the Ordinance includes a “Termination Provision.” This Provision provides that “[p]ublic safety departments will not respond to an activated alarm system at an alarm site following the fourth false alarm. . . within any twenty-four (24) month period.”
  • The suspension period after the fourth false alarms extends one calendar year, beginning on the date the determination is made to suspend public safety response to a particular site.
  • After dispatch services to a site have been terminated under the above provision, the City may continue to impose fines on an alarm company for additional false alarms from that site.
  • However, the Ordinance allows hearing officers discretion to reduce or dismiss civil penalties when warranted, and to identify critical or high-risk locations not subject to automatic suspension for false alarms when it would be detrimental to the safety of the public.
  • In addition to establishing a penalty scheme, the Ordinance contains an Appeals section, which outlines the procedural steps necessary to challenge assessments of civil penalties levied for false alarms.
  • The Appeals section explains that an alarm company may appeal “by filing a written notice of appeal with the police chief or the fire chief, as applicable within ten days after the date of notification of the assessment of civil penalties or other enforcement decisions.”
  • If an alarm company fails to file a challenge within ten days of notification, it has waived its right to appeal.
  • Substantive due process challenges that do not implicate fundamental rights are reviewed under the rational basis test.
  • Under the rational basis standard, a law will be upheld on a substantive due process challenge “so long as there is any reasonably conceivable state of facts that could provide a rational basis for [the law].”
  • When applying the rational basis test, courts conduct a two-step analysis.
  • “The first step in determining whether legislation survives rational-basis scrutiny is identifying a legitimate government purpose — a goal — which the enacting body could have been pursuing. The actual motivations of the enacting governmental body are entirely irrelevant. . . .”
  • The second step then asks whether a rational basis exists for the governing body to believe that the legislation would further the hypothesized purpose.
  • Upon applying the first step of the rational basis test to the present case, the Court concludes that the City, in passing the Ordinance, was pursuing a legitimate government purpose.
  • The purpose of the Ordinance is clearly laid out in its text, which states that, “the purpose of this division is to encourage alarm owners and alarm companies to properly use and maintain the operational effectiveness of alarm systems in order to improve the reliability of alarm systems and reduce or eliminate false alarms. The City of Sandy Springs finds that excessive false alarms unduly burden the Sandy Springs police and fire-rescue departments and wastes limited public safety resources.”
  • Under the “highly deferential” standard, and in light of the “presumption of validity,” Plaintiffs have not shown that the civil penalty scheme was arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relationship to the legitimate purposes of preventing or reducing false alarms and conserving the City’s resources in the event of true emergencies.

Here is a copy of the decision: The Georgia Electric Life Safety et al v. City of Sandy Springs RULING

Here is a copy of the original complaint: The Georgia Electric Life Safety et al v. City of Sandy Springs

The complaint includes a copy of the ordinance as an appendix.

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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