Tackling Taxation by Citation in Brookside, Alabama
For years, Brookside, Alabama—a town of 1,200 residents and virtually no serious crime—has used its police and municipal court to maximize revenue. Officers stop drivers under trivial or fabricated pretenses, drum up multiple citations, and then tow their cars to hold for ransom. Over just three years, Brookside’s revenues from fines and forfeitures increased from roughly $50,000 in 2017 to more than $600,000 (half the town’s annual revenue) in 2020. And under the town’s keep-what-you-catch policing scheme, more than $500,000 went right back to the police in 2020 alone. Remarkably, both the mayor and the recently resigned police chief believe those numbers are still too low.
As you might imagine, IJ disagrees. So we rushed to Brookside to investigate, conducting weeks of field interviews where we heard endless stories of government abuse. And in April, we launched a massive class action on behalf of all the town’s victims—one of our largest fines and fees cases yet.
One of our clients is Brittany Coleman. On her birthday, Brookside police pulled Brittany over, falsely alleging she was tailgating her boyfriend’s car. Officers handcuffed her for no reason and searched her car for 30 minutes. They found nothing; still, they charged Brittany with marijuana possession and towed her car. And even though the marijuana charge failed for lack of evidence, Brittany still paid almost $1,000 in towing fees and court costs. Sadly, Brittany’s experience is typical.
As bad as they are, Brookside’s abuses are only the natural consequence of incentives to generate revenue through citations. By fighting back, we are placing governments across the country on notice: Abusive fines and fees are unconstitutional, and IJ will not allow governments to get away with them.
Suranjan Sen is an IJ Law & Liberty Fellow.
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