Coffee City is a little town in Texas with about 250 residents. But last year, its bloated police department issued 5,123 citations. This level of brazen overpolicing not only violates the principles of justice and fairness, but also the U.S. Constitution.
Those tickets generated approximately $1.075 million in revenue, or about 63% of the city’s overall revenue, according to Coffee City’s 2022-23 fiscal year budget. The city’s revenue from court fines was seven times greater than the money it collected from sales tax.
Coffee City’s windfall came after its police department quadrupled in size in just two years. Under the department’s leadership, Coffee City has become “a magnet for troubled cops,” according to a KHOU 11 report. More than half of the town’s 50 police officers were suspended, demoted, terminated, or dishonorably discharged at previous law enforcement agencies. At least a dozen Coffee City officers have been criminally charged for offenses including family violence, DWI, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and endangering a child, among other alleged indiscretions.
Unfortunately, this practice of towns using their police departments to make money isn’t new. In Alabama, the town of Brookside created a money-making machine that helped fund nearly half of the town’s budget. In that case, the town’s police chief, mayor, and council created a scheme where Brookside police officers would harass drivers, issue excessive fines, and tow vehicles for bogus reasons—doing everything in their power to maximize each stop’s profit.
Brittany Coleman was one of thousands of victims of Brookside’s policing-for-profit scheme. Brittany’s birthday turned into a nightmare when she was pulled over for allegedly following her boyfriend’s car too closely as the two drove together to get lunch. She was forced to leave her car, handcuffed, and told to stand in the hot Alabama sun.
When all was said and done, Brittany received multiple citations, had her car towed, and was forced to pay Brookside nearly $1,000 in towing fees, fines, and court costs. Her charges were eventually dropped, but she never got this money back.
The Institute of Justice (IJ) is fighting Brookside’s nefarious scheme on behalf of Brittany and other victims in a class action lawsuit to ensure police departments don’t treat Americans as piggy banks.
“Much like Brookside, Coffee City has a police force that’s grossly disproportionate to the town’s size, and it’s been using that bloated department to rake in money,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “This raises serious concerns about whether the town’s leaders are more concerned with policing for profit than they are with public safety. That’s an unjust policy that falls hardest on the people least able to fight back. And it’s also unconstitutional.”
Our Constitution enshrines the right to due process and protection against excessive fines. Up until 2019, that protection only applied to the federal government. Thanks to IJ, though, the Supreme Court extended this constitutional safeguard to the state and local level, which can protect people from schemes like in Brookside and Coffee City.
Moreover, various courts have recognized that it is presumptively unconstitutional for municipalities to generate more than 10% of their revenue from fines or fees. Brookside generated five times that amount, and Coffee City’s revenue is over six times that benchmark.
Greed should never serve as a reason to pull someone over. However, in both Brookside and Coffee City, city leaders and police department officials seem to be putting profit before civil liberties. The courts and the Constitution are clear on this issue: police departments can’t treat their citizens like piggy banks.