BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—Warning about potential law enforcement bias, the U.S. Justice Department filed a statement of interest on Tuesday supporting a class action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ), a national public interest law firm, challenging the constitutionality of Brookside, Alabama’s profit-driven policing practices. The victims of Brookside’s exploitative practices sued the town and a private towing partner in April over abusive fines and fees that flow right back to the police, prosecutor and judge imposing them.
“Courts, prosecutors and police should be driven by justice—not revenue,” wrote the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in its statement to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, calling on the court to reject Brookside’s motion to dismiss IJ’s lawsuit against the town’s municipal judge, prosecutor and police department. The statement explains that the lawsuit “depicts . . . a system” in which “funding for prosecutors or police officers depend[s] substantially on unnecessarily aggressive law enforcement aimed at generating income through fines and fees,” in ways that “punish the poor for their poverty and put law enforcement at odds with the communities they are meant to serve.”
Four plaintiffs from Alabama and Georgia, who paid hundreds of dollars and suffered humiliation at the hands of Brookside’s profit-fueled car towing and ticketing systems, sued to vindicate the rights of thousands of others subjected to Brookside’s abuses. Those abuses resulted in a 600% increase in the town’s fines and forfeitures revenue from 2018 to 2020, almost all of which went right back to the police department, which also keeps 100% of the hundreds of thousands of dollars it imposes on the release of towed vehicles.
“The Justice Department’s statement recognizes that Brookside’s abusive system of policing for profit violates the Constitution, and that the town should be held accountable,” said IJ Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili. “No one should live in fear of being ticketed, fined, or having their car towed for the sake of raising police revenue.”
The Justice Department’s statement explains that courts, prosecutors, and police “operate under impermissible conflicts when there is ‘a realistic possibility that [their] judgment will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain as a result of zealous enforcement efforts,’” and that the system in Brookside gives rise to those constitutional concerns.
The IJ class action is currently awaiting the federal court’s ruling on Brookside’s motion to dismiss the case, which IJ has opposed.
Bill Dawson of Dawson Law, LLC is local counsel for IJ in this lawsuit.