BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—A federal district court dealt a major blow to notorious Brookside, Alabama, rejecting the town’s effort to dismiss a federal class action lawsuit seeking accountability for its abusive ticketing and towing practices. Yesterday afternoon, Judge Anna M. Manasco of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama denied Brookside’s request to dismiss the lawsuit and rejected a private towing company’s request to be dismissed from the case. The lawsuit—brought by four named plaintiffs represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ)—demands accountability on behalf of all drivers affected by the town’s unconstitutional system of abusive fines, fees, and property seizures.
“Brookside has rightly become the national posterchild of policing for profit,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “The court’s unequivocal denial of the town’s effort to evade accountability for its abusive ticketing and towing practices is a welcome sign. It should serve as a warning to local governments across the country that they can’t prey on the vulnerable to generate revenue. Enough is enough. People are fighting back, asserting their rights, and demanding accountability.”
For years, the town and its towing company partner pursued and prioritized police revenue and private profit over constitutional rights. The small town made national headlines last 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, with hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing to police coffers annually.
In her decision, Judge Manasco noted: “Plaintiffs are seeking to dismantle the financial incentive system for law enforcement that the Town allegedly erected beginning in March 2018—a system that allegedly caused the Town to be investigated by the Alabama Attorney General’s office.” And the allegations of systemic, profit-fueled enforcement “are sufficient to plead a due process claim based on the institutional interest of the police department in generating impound fees and making arrests.” With the police keeping nearly all of the town’s skyrocketing revenues from fines, forfeitures, and oversight-free impound fees, the court observed that the lawsuit paints a picture “that the police department operated on ‘a direct eat-what-you-kill . . . system.’”
As the court recognized, Brookside police towed the cars of the named plaintiffs—Brittany Coleman, Brandon Jones, Chekeithia Grant, and Alexis Thomas—regardless of whether the vehicles could be safely operated. They had to pay $175 to Brookside before paying $160 (plus daily impound fees) to a private towing company to get them back. Even with criminal charges dismissed, there is no way to get that money back—or the hundreds of dollars in bail and court costs that were also piled on, further padding town revenues.
These abuses disproportionately affect marginalized communities. As the U.S. Department of Justice argued in a statement of interest supporting the plaintiffs, these profit-driven systems “punish people for their poverty” and “deprive people of federal rights.”
“We look forward to fully vindicating the constitutional rights of our clients and the hundreds of other people whose rights were similarly violated,” said IJ Attorney Tori Clark. “What’s happened in Brookside is extreme, but it’s not unique. Local leaders everywhere should get the message.”