Bill Maurer is a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice and a member of the Advisory Board of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
Reviews | States should ban ‘quote taxation’, which encourages predatory policing
behind the town hall seated an anti-mine armored vehicle and three utility vehicles, all on loan from the Ministry of Defence. Half a dozen new SUVs were parked in a row. All that gear for a town of about 1,200 people, where just 55 major crimes — and no homicides or rapes — were reported between 2011 and 2018. With a flood of tickets and vehicle seizures, the Brookside Police Department had grown wealthy, while many of the townspeople lived below the poverty line among vacant and dilapidated houses and trailers.
Brookside’s racket made headlines when the Birmingham News published a series of articles exposing the police department’s questionable ticketing practices and rapidly increasing revenue from fines. The numbers are breathtaking. In 2020, Brookside made more misdemeanor arrests than population and towed 789 cars. In two years, revenues from fines and confiscations have increased by more than 640%.
The revelations led to the resignation of the police chief and several deputies. There have been calls for state and federal civil rights investigations, individual lawsuits, and now a class action from the Institute for Justice, where I am senior counsel.
Among the named plaintiffs is Brittany Coleman. She was arrested by a Brookside officer for allegedly following her boyfriend’s car too closely as they drove together for breakfast on his birthday. Three officers forced her to remain handcuffed in the scorching sun for more than 30 minutes as they searched her car. They issued him citations for tailgating and possession of marijuana, even though they found no marijuana, and unnecessarily towed his car. The marijuana charge was dismissed. Even so, Coleman was forced to pay nearly $1,000 for towing costs, fines, and court costs.
Coleman is just one of thousands arrested by the city. The number of traffic citations at Brookside increased from less than 500 in 2018 to more than 3,000 in 2020. Officers forced the drivers out of their cars and handcuffed them. They snatched and smashed cell phones. And the nightmare continued for months, as victims were forced to appear in municipal court, sometimes repeatedly, to challenge their unfair fines.
Brookside is far from the only place in the United States that seeks to get rich through “taxation per quote.” Since the 1970s, Americans have found themselves subjected to an endless parade of fines, “user fees” and surcharges that can plunge into poverty those charged with the most insignificant crimes.
2017 US Civil Rights Commission Report “Fines and charges targeted against communities of color” uncovered similar abuses in Ferguson, Missouri, and cities across the country, noting the pernicious role municipal courts were playing. Then, two years later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the excessive fines clause of the Constitution applied to states and municipalities. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited the American Civil Liberties Union’s brief saying that “State and local governments nationwide are increasingly reliant on fines and fees as a source of general revenue.”
State laws across the country permit this abuse. When municipalities run their own courts without adequate oversight of the state court system, they often become revenue generators, as mayors and city councils determine judges’ salaries and job security based on how they generate money. In Brookside, as citations skyrocketed, the salaries of the district attorney and city judge also rose. Using the courts to generate revenue creates an unconstitutional incentive for the government to create more laws and to ticket, arrest, try and convict those it accuses of breaking those laws.
State lawmakers must act to prevent future Brooksides and Fergusons. In 2020, the Institute for Justice published the first full accounting of state laws which can contribute to the abuse of municipal fines and fees, and has classified each state. The report cites potential policy solutions to increase transparency and cap the percentages of fines and fees that cities can keep for their own budgets. Spurred by Brookside abuse, Alabama recently passed a law imposing a cap on 10 percent, which is still far too high. Other states may pass tougher laws to prevent starving municipalities from making national news. It wouldn’t make up for past abuses, but it would be a step forward.
The courts also have an obligation to act. Too often, they allow rapacious municipal officials to operate their municipal justice system as a source of funding, without recognizing how badly this taints judicial and judicial decisions.
In Brookside, the mayor and attorney remain. While a county judge has dismissed many open cases, the city is appealing these and pursuing others, hoping to continue bringing in the money.
Justice may end up winning. But other municipalities across the country treat residents like ATMs. If profit incentives persist, local governments will continue to pervert justice and violate constitutional rights. Until policymakers tackle this problem, we shouldn’t be surprised to find other small towns with tanks paid for with money taken from the poorest among us.