IJ Leads the Fight Against Abusive Fines and Fees
On April 4, the Institute for Justice launched its 14th suit challenging abusive fines and fees, this time in Brookside, Alabama. In addition to litigating in 11 states, we have produced groundbreaking strategic research studies and garnered significant media coverage to inform the public of the problem. In just a few years, IJ has gone from having no fines and fees cases to being one of the leading organizations fighting this abuse nationwide. How did this happen?
It started with a tweet. IJ had been litigating a free speech case in St. Louis for years. To keep up with the issue, I followed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Twitter. One day, the paper tweeted about a St. Louis suburb, Pagedale, that had made harmless conditions illegal so that it could generate revenue. It was ticketing people for things like having mismatched blinds, kiddie pools in the front yard, and basement windows without drapes.
My IJ colleagues and I thought, “This cannot be constitutional,” and we were right. A few years later, we obtained a consent decree on behalf of those Pagedale had ticketed that stopped the city’s policing for profit and reorganized its municipal court system.
In litigating the Pagedale case, however, we discovered that city was not alone in abusing its enforcement powers. Across the country, state and local governments use their criminal and civil enforcement systems not to protect the public but rather to raise revenue, often from the poorest and most vulnerable among us. In addition, many of the court systems the government uses to extract this money are courts in name only. They lack basic procedural protections for defendants and operate less as a system of justice and more as a machine for squeezing money from people.
When the government takes an individual’s freedom or property, the potential for abuse is at its zenith. This is why the Constitution demands that defendants be provided with rigorous procedural protections. When the government prosecutes people to raise money, and does so in an unfair process, this violates the Constitution’s guarantee of due process.
But although the problem of municipalities treating their citizens like ATMs was more widespread than we ever imagined, it was also a problem well suited to IJ’s brand of strategic public interest litigation. And in just a few short years, IJ has become the nation’s leading legal advocate against abusive fines and fees.
We did it the IJ way, diving headfirst into challenging these abusive systems, embarking on an aggressive litigation strategy to challenge such systems wherever we find them, producing strategic research to expand what we know of the problem, speaking across the country, writing media documents and law review articles, and meeting with officials at the U.S. Department of Justice and the White House.
Our new suit against Brookside’s policing for profit scheme, described here, is our latest challenge to fines and fees abuses, and it won’t be the last. We will continue to file and vigorously litigate cases until the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that a justice system tainted by financial interest and without opportunity for a fair hearing is contrary to the Constitution and the guarantee of limited government enshrined in it.
Bill Maurer is managing attorney of IJ’s Washington Office.
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