Police take an oath to protect and serve the public. But in Brookside, Alabama, a top-down scheme pushed by its police chief, mayor and council has prioritized something else instead: generating money. Hundreds of people tell similar stories about being pulled over for dubious reasons and charged with bogus violations. Many motorists were left stranded on the side of the road when their cars were towed without justification, often at night and with small children.
The town prosecutor and judge rubber-stamped these abuses, and in turn, Brookside’s revenue spiked by over 600% in two years, with fines and forfeitures coming to fuel nearly half the town’s budget. Yet still, that was not enough for the minds behind Brookside’s policing racket. Police Chief Mike Jones, who recently resigned, declared the 600% increase “a failure” because the town could be raking in more cash with “more officers and more productivity.”
This “productivity” is carried out in a manner as outrageous as its goal. Following Chief Jones’ takeover, the police force began fabricating violations, patrolling outside its jurisdiction, threatening and harassing drivers, and handcuffing people and towing their cars for bogus reasons. The police have been targeting the people they know are more vulnerable, including low-income individuals and people of color. With its nine police officers and only 1,200 residents, Brookside’s rate of officers is one per 139 residents, more than four times the national average.
Brittany Coleman was one of the victims of Brookside’s policing for profit scheme. A recent University of Alabama graduate, she was pulled over by Brookside police for allegedly following her boyfriend’s car too closely, as they drove together to get lunch on her birthday. Without justification, the officer forced Brittany to stand handcuffed in the hot Alabama sun for more than 30 minutes as he searched her car. She was issued citations for tailgating and for marijuana possession. The possession charge was later dismissed because the police never actually found any marijuana. The officer told Brittany that, if not for the pandemic, he would have arrested her. Regardless, he ordered her car towed. Brittany was forced to pay Brookside nearly $1,000 in towing fees, fines, and court costs.
Abuses like these are not isolated incidents. Brookside police had a practice of finding any reason to tow cars and leave people on the side of the road. No matter the weather, no matter the time of day, and without regard to whether there were small children in the car, people were left stranded on empty country roads.
Brookside’s policing practices are deeply offensive—not only to common decency, but also the U.S. Constitution. Courts recognize that generating 10% of revenue from fines and fees raises a presumption of unconstitutionality; Brookside generated five times that. That’s why Brittany and three other victims of Brookside’s policing racket, represented by the Institute for Justice, are filing a class action lawsuit to affirm that police must act in the interest of justice, not their pocketbooks.
Brookside’s Profit-First Policing Program
When Mike Jones became Brookside’s police chief in March 2018, the small town pushed its law enforcement and municipal-court systems to maximize the town’s revenue stream. By 2020, fines and forfeitures made up around 49 percent of the town’s revenue, nearly a fourfold increase from its 2017 percentage. That is nearly five times the amount that courts recognize as raising a presumption of unconstitutional, profit-driven policing.
Making matters worse, Brookside funnels almost all this money back into its police department. As stated by Brookside’s mayor, $544,077 of the $610,307 raised through fines and forfeitures in 2020 went directly to the police in the form of training, conferences, computer and software purchases, vehicle maintenance and purchases, and salaries. After the police got their cut, Brookside “only profited $70,886.”
Among other purchases, Brookside police used these funds to buy expensive unmarked black SUVs and military-style equipment. Chief Jones parked one such purchase, known to residents as the “town tank,” in front of City Hall as a show of intimidation.
The incentive for Brookside’s officers to aggressively ticket people is not only reflected in those financial figures, but also in the department’s on-the-ground practices. The Brookside Police Department’s practices include stacking charges so that a single violation results in a handful of charges, with corresponding fines, fees and court costs for each. The police have ordered vehicles towed for lack of insurance, while ignoring owners’ efforts to show insurance documentation. Across the board, the town’s law-enforcement mission has been as simple as it has been corrosive: use the criminal justice apparatus to profit at all costs.
Four victims of the constitutional abuses perpetuated by the Brookside Police Department are spearheading IJ’s class action.
On April 4, 2020, recent University of Alabama graduate Brittany Coleman was on her way to celebrate her birthday with breakfast. She and her boyfriend were driving in separate cars, with Brittany following a few car lengths behind. A Brookside officer pulled her over for allegedly tailgating her boyfriend’s car, then forced her to stand handcuffed in the hot Alabama sun for more than 30 minutes as he searched it. He issued her a citation for tailgating and for marijuana possession. The court dropped the possession charge because the police did not actually find marijuana. The officer told her that, if not for the pandemic, he would have arrested her. Instead, he ordered her car towed, even though she was fully able to legally drive it away from the scene. Even though she did nothing wrong, Brookside forced Brittany to pay nearly $1,000 in towing fees, fines and court costs.
On December 31, 2021, Brandon Jones was pulled over while driving to his cousin’s home in Brookside to pick up COVID-19 medicine. His wife was in the car, and their three children—ages 11, 6 and 1—were in the back. Eventually, after demanding Brandon’s license and registration, the officer said he pulled Brandon over because the car’s registered owner had a warrant from another jurisdiction. Ultimately, he informed Brandon that he would tow his car because Brandon did not show the “official” insurance card, which was in Brandon’s other car at home. But Brandon had shown the officer other paperwork proving that the car was insured, including proof of payment and the insurance policy number. But the police towed the family’s vehicle anyway, stranding Brandon and his frightened children on a dark, unlit, country road on New Year’s Eve. Nearby relatives had to come pick up Brandon and his family from the roadside.
Chekeithia Grant and Alexis Thomas
On February 15, 2020, Alexis Thomas was driving her mother Chekeithia Grant’s car when Brookside police pulled her over. She immediately called her mom to let her know what was happening. Chekeithia quickly made her way to the scene. The officer said that one of the vehicle’s two tag lights was out, claimed he smelled marijuana, handcuffed Alexis and forced her into a police car. He began searching the car.
Upon Chekeithia’s arrival, an officer demanded identification. She said that it was in the purse in the car Alexis was driving. Without asking for consent, the officer rifled through the purse and wallet (slamming Chekeithia’s phone on the car and breaking it in the process). During this unlawful search, he found a small prescription bottle that he claimed contained marijuana. The officer then arrested Chekeithia and towed both cars. Chekeithia paid hundreds of dollars to retrieve the cars. Two years and several stressful court trips later, Brookside dismissed all charges against both women.
Now, Brittany, Brandon, Chekeithia and Alexis are fighting back, with a lawsuit in federal court against Brookside (and the towing company that partnered with the town). Seeking to represent classes of other victims, they present claims that are as straightforward as they are important:
First, Brookside’s law-enforcement practices violate the Fourteenth Amendment. At base, the Due Process Clause embodies the teaching that justice must be seen to be done. For that reason, the Supreme Court has long held that “mayor’s courts”—where the mayor of a town helps set the city’s budget and also rules on the guilt or innocence of defendants—are unconstitutional because of a conflict of interest. Similarly, the Court has said that prosecutors’ duty to exercise their discretion neutrally can also be compromised if their department has a financial stake in obtaining convictions.
Brookside’s revenue-fueled criminal-justice system breaks with these principles at a bedrock level; at every turn, the terrifying power of law enforcement has been harnessed, not for justice, but for profit. The police department that exercises discretion to charge people has enjoyed the lion’s share of the fines those people end up paying—hundreds of thousands of dollars going straight back to the department. The prosecutor (paid by Brookside) saw a 120% pay jump between 2019 and 2021 alone—a spike he attributed, in part, to the town’s growing municipal court caseload. As for the municipal judge? He, too, is hired and paid by Brookside’s council. And in recent years, he also enjoyed a pay raise of well over 100 percent. Simply, Brookside’s judge, prosecutor and police officers all understand the basic truth: Their employer is counting on them for “productivity” (the former police chief’s word)—in other words, to exploit the power of the criminal justice system to raise revenue. That inherent bias in their work unconstitutionally compromises the tickets they write, the charges they issue and the cases they decide.
Second: Brookside’s wildly abusive towing practices. Brookside’s practice of reflexively towing vehicles to generate revenue also violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Daily, Brookside police officers have exercised their discretion to eject people from their cars, order the vehicles towed and impounded (often on dubious grounds), and hold the vehicles hostage until the owners fork over hundreds in “release” fees. In just the last couple years, these fees have transferred tens of thousands of dollars from hardworking, often low-income people to the Brookside police. Like Brookside’s law enforcement abuses more generally, the town’s relentless use of towing as a means of feeding its revenue stream is unconstitutional.
A Nationwide Problem
Brookside’s abuses of its policing powers to rake in revenue are brazen, but the town is far from alone in unconstitutionally relying on fines and fees to prop up and inflate its budget. Throughout the country, local governments increasingly resort to using policing for profit to wrest money from the poorest and most vulnerable among us. The abuse and harassment endured at the hands of the Brookside police are the natural consequence of systems that permit policing for profit. The Institute for Justice has been at the forefront of fighting efforts by the government to use fines, fees and civil forfeiture as a means of raising revenue.
In a 2019 case brought by IJ, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on excessive finds under the Eighth Amendment applies to the states. Currently, IJ is litigating on behalf of numerous people trapped by abusive municipal fines regimes.
IJ has also conducted research into cities that relied heavily on fines and fees to balance their budgets in “The Price of Taxation by Citation.” The 2019 study showed that heavy reliance on fines and fees reduces community trust, a finding that indicates that cities may pay a price for this behavior. And in 2020, IJ released a 50-state survey of state laws governing municipal fines and fees and how they may encourage abusive behavior.
With this lawsuit, IJ hopes to establish that the Constitution forbids municipalities from systematically using police forces to generate revenue.
The Litigation Team
This case is being litigated by IJ attorneys Sam Gedge, Jaba Tsitsuashvili, and Law and Liberty Fellow Suranjan Sen. Bill Dawson of Dawson Law, LLC is local counsel.
About the Institute for Justice
The Institute for Justice is a public-interest law firm that litigates nationwide to vindicate individual liberties. In 2018, IJ secured a federal consent decree ending Pagedale, Missouri’s abusive fines and fees practices. IJ is currently working to protect a Florida homeowner from ruinous fines for failing to cut his lawn; Doraville, Georgia residents from fines for cracked driveways and improperly stacked fire wood; and Eagle, Wisconsin farmers targeted for code enforcement after they spoke out at town meetings.
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