BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Six hundred forty percent. That’s how much Brookside, Alabama’s police increased its revenue from fines, fees and forfeitures from 2018 to 2020. This windfall did not happen by accident but is the result of a systematic effort by Brookside’s police department to prioritize ticket collection over the administration of justice. This kind of improper financial incentive not only betrays the duty to protect and serve; it violates the U.S. Constitution. A class action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national civil liberties law firm, and four victims of Brookside’s policing abuses seeks to secure justice for victims of the town’s policing scheme and set a precedent that justice systems perverted by a profit incentive are unconstitutional.
The new federal lawsuit has two primary claims: First, Brookside’s policy, practice and custom of relentlessly towing vehicles for bogus reasons to generate cash for the town violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Second, Brookside’s use of trumped-up criminal citations to maximize fines and fees for its financial benefit similarly violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Both claims maintain that Brookside uses its law-enforcement and municipal-court systems to generate revenue for those in charge.
“Policing for profit preys on the vulnerable, and it subverts public trust,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “Courts recognize that generating 10% of revenue from fines and fees raises a presumption of unconstitutionality. Brookside generates nearly five times that.”
Brittany Coleman is one of thousands of victims of Brookside’s policing for profit scheme. She was pulled over by a Brookside officer for allegedly following her boyfriend’s car too closely as they drove together to get breakfast on her birthday. Three officers forced Brittany to stand handcuffed in the hot Alabama sun for more than 30 minutes as they searched her car. They issued her citations for tailgating and marijuana possession, even though they found no marijuana, and needlessly towed her car. The marijuana charge was dismissed. Even so, Brittany was forced to pay nearly $1,000 for towing fees and court costs. She’s bringing the class action to achieve justice for Brookside’s residents.
“My birthday turned into a nightmare when Brookside police pulled me over for nothing, handcuffed me for no reason, and needlessly searched and towed my car,” said Brittany. “I was one of many people who were abused during a police stop and then had to pay hundreds of dollars to get their car back. Everyone who was mistreated deserves justice.”
Brandon Jones’ story is similar. Brookside police towed his car and left him, his wife and their three frightened children stranded on a dark country road this past New Year’s Eve. No matter the weather or time of day, and without regard to the health or the age of the people affected, Brookside towed cars at every opportunity, enriching itself and a private tow company even if the police citations were later rejected in court.
“Brookside treats its residents like walking, talking ATMs, making withdrawals by issuing tickets and towing cars with no regard for justice or even common decency,” said IJ Attorney Sam Gedge. “Brookside’s thirst for revenue has created an unconstitutional incentive to ticket, convict and fine people.”
Brookside has not been shy about the intent of its practices. Police chief Mike Jones, who recently resigned, declared the town’s 640% revenue spike “a failure” because the town could be raking in even more cash with “more officers and more productivity.” But even after his resignation the abusive policy and practice continues.
The proceeds of this “productivity” went almost entirely to Brookside’s police department. Of the $610,307 raised through fines and forfeitures in 2020, for example, $544,077 went directly to the police, in the form of training, conferences, vehicles and salaries. These purchases included expensive unmarked black SUVs and military-style equipment. The department even leased a mine-resistant, militarized vehicle, which officers parked outside the town hall and drove around the town as part of their rampant intimidation tactics.
“To make sure the Brookside horror stories don’t repeat there or anywhere else, the courts need to declare that abusive policing is not only wrong, but unconstitutional,” said IJ Attorney Suranjan Sen. “Holding Brookside accountable will serve as a warning to local governments nationwide who look to taxation by citation as a way to boost revenue.”
The abuse and harassment people have endured at the hands of the Brookside police are the natural consequence of systems that permit policing for profit. The Institute for Justice is a nationally recognized advocate for fighting government abuse of fines and fees to pursue illegitimate goals. IJ is currently challenging fines and fees practices in California, Florida, Georgia, New York, and Wisconsin.
This lawsuit seeks relief for all people who have had to pay fees to Brookside and its towing-company partner to retrieve vehicles they towed under Brookside’s profit-fueled policing practices. It also seeks relief and accountability for everyone ensnared in Brookside’s municipal enforcement system.
Bill Dawson of Dawson Law, LLC is local counsel for IJ in this lawsuit.