IJ Deals Another Blow to Policing for Profit
Last year, journalists exposed a system of towing cars and issuing traffic citations not for public safety, but for the financial gain of government in Brookside, Alabama. They found that over the course of two years, the town’s fines and forfeitures revenue skyrocketed by more than 600% and that almost all the money went right back to town police—who spent it on expensive unmarked SUVs, a K-9 they named “Cash,” and other goodies.
Brookside made national headlines, becoming the posterchild for policing for profit. Unfortunately, that sunlight was inadequate disinfectant: Town leaders openly bragged about their 600% increase in revenue, made clear that they want “even more growth in revenue,” and made sure to explain that there has been no “change in town policy.” In short, Brookside embraced and defended its unconstitutional and perverse financial incentive scheme.
That’s where IJ comes in. We filed an ambitious class action, seeking injunctions against Brookside’s systems of policing and prosecution, as well as the return of all the money collected by the town and its towing company partner from car tows since 2018. As the U.S. Department of Justice put it in a Statement of Interest supporting our case, the lawsuit “depicts . . . a system” in which “funding for prosecutors or police officers depend[s] substantially on unnecessarily aggressive law enforcement aimed at generating income through fines and fees” in ways that “punish the poor for their poverty and put law enforcement at odds with the communities they are meant to serve.”
In March, a federal district court judge agreed, denying motions to dismiss the case. The court recounted the experiences of our clients—Brittany Coleman, Brandon Jones, Chekeithia Grant, and Alexis Thomas—recognizing them as emblematic of the town’s policy of needlessly towing cars for financial gain, and stated bluntly what’s at stake: “Plaintiffs are seeking to dismantle the financial incentive system for law enforcement that the town allegedly erected beginning in March 2018.” Quoting from IJ’s brief, the court recognized that Brookside’s “police department operated on ‘a direct eat-what-you-kill . . . system.’”
With that crucial first-round victory in hand, we will continue fighting to end Brookside’s unconstitutional practices and get back for every affected individual the money that Brookside unjustly extracted under its towing-for-profit system.
This case is part of IJ’s ongoing national leadership in battling abusive fines, fees, and forfeitures. And our leadership is showing results: When the Department of Justice issued a “Dear Colleague” letter in April, reminding state and local governments of the perniciousness and unconstitutionality of financially interested law enforcement and excessive fines, it cited IJ’s work in Brookside, Georgia, Indiana, and New Mexico.
To keep that drumbeat going, we’ll keep doing everything we can to keep policymakers, police, and prosecutors from treating citizens like walking ATMs.
Jaba Tsitsuashvili is an IJ attorney.
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