BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—A federal district court allowed a lawsuit against three police officers from Brookside, Alabama to move forward by denying qualified immunity for handcuffing a young woman and towing her car on her birthday without justification in 2020. The small town made national headlines this year for ticketing drivers and towing their cars to fuel a concerted policing-for-profit system that resulted in a 600% increase in revenue from fines and forfeitures. The claims against three of its officers brought by Brittany Coleman, represented by the Institute for Justice, are part of a broader class action lawsuit challenging the town’s cash-driven policing practices.
Coleman, who is one of four plaintiffs in the Institute for Justice’s class action, said: “Brookside’s officers had no reason to handcuff me or tow my car, and I’m relieved the judge saw that.”
Coleman’s suit is challenging the officers’ decisions to keep her handcuffed on the side of the road and tow her car without any indication that she posed a threat to safety or that she could not safely drive away. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama rejected the officers’ attempt to dodge accountability, denying them qualified immunity. The court explained that the officers have not “provide[d] any reason for handcuffing” Coleman. Also, “body camera footage flatly contradicts” their argument that they towed the car for driving under the influence of marijuana. To the contrary, the footage shows one of the officers admitting, “I don’t believe you’re going to be under the influence,” but then the officers deciding to take the car because “‘the Chief’ wanted them to tow in these circumstances.”
“The Chief” was former Brookside police chief Mike Jones, who boasted publicly about implementing a ticketing and towing system that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for the tiny town of 1,200 residents—money that went almost entirely back to the police department. That system, which issued more than 3,000 tickets and towed nearly 800 cars in 2020 alone, has resulted in more than a dozen lawsuits and multiple town halls complaining of pretextual ticketing, unnecessary towing, and abusive and discriminatory arrests.
Under the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, Coleman was required to show that the constitutional right to be free from baseless handcuffing and towing was “clearly established”—rights that the district court found were “clear” and “obvious.” With the officers’ bid to duck accountability rejected, Brittany can now proceed with her claim against them.
Institute for Justice Attorney Tori Clark added: “The district court’s denial of qualified immunity is an important step in the efforts of ordinary people to hold Brookside and its officers accountable for violating their constitutional rights.”