Who steps in if cops become robbers?

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(Reuters) - Brookside Police Department in Alabama has made the criminalization of poorer residents and passers-by the tiny town’s leading industry, according to a striking expose published on Wednesday.

The report on the news website AL.com tells a two-year story of a town that is symbolic of a nationwide problem: predatory law enforcement and policing for profits.

The overt nature of the apparent abuses of power in Brookside begs an immediate response from the various state and federal officials responsible for upholding the fair administration of justice in Alabama, especially where an entire law enforcement system was apparently subverted.

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The report also spotlights, yet again, the sort of abuses enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court's broad grants of legal immunity to law enforcement officials.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman told me the agency is aware of the reporting on Brookside and “will consider that information, along with other information we may receive” in deciding if an investigation into a pattern of unconstitutional law enforcement “may be appropriate.”

The Brookside Police Department didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Jan. 19 report says that Police Chief Mike Jones was Brookside’s only officer in 2018, and the town of about 1,250 had reported almost no serious crimes for the previous eight years.

Brookside has a short, 1.5-mile portion of Interstate 22 within its jurisdiction, and it brought in $82,467 in traffic fines in 2018. That made for about 14% of its total income – a relatively high proportion.

By 2020, Brookside had nine officers, and they were making vastly more traffic stops. Town revenue from fines and police seizures of people’s property surged to $610,000, about half its income, AL.com reported. Brookside ultimately doubled its revenue, and now spends more money funding its police than it did on every city expenditure, in total, just two years ago.

Now, the town faces multiple lawsuits and public accusations -- from residents and drivers, criminal justice advocates, the Jefferson County District Attorney and even cops in neighboring jurisdictions -- that they are running a money-making racket, in violation of constitutional rights, rather than protecting public safety.

Department officers apparently ticketed hundreds of people without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing, and under non-existent laws; and, they did so in unmarked, tinted vehicles, while dressed in unmarked, dark uniforms, AL.com reported. One lawsuit also alleges racism.

Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, told me there were “many potential constitutional and other violations” documented in Brookside, and “ample reason” for the Department of Justice and state officials to intervene.

“This is exactly the role of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, and the state attorney general has similar authority under Alabama’s laws and constitution,” Weiss said.

Alabama attorney general Steve Marshall declined to comment.

Both Weiss and the Justice Department referenced the agency’s finding of a “pattern-or-practice” of constitutional violations in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 in answering my questions.

“In Ferguson, DOJ found it couldn’t look at just police, because they were working with prosecutors, the courts and city hall to use certain people as a piggy bank,” Weiss said. “This is very much the same story, and an example of something we have reason to believe is happening in many small towns.”

Plenty of reason, in fact.

Nora Demleitner, a law professor and president of St. John’s College, Annapolis, wrote in a 2017 law review article that: “Long before the Department of Justice's investigation into police and court practices in Ferguson, there were reports of towns practically funding themselves through traffic fines, especially for speeding violations.”

Indeed, the phenomenon of traffic traps, speed traps -- or “taxation by citation,” more broadly speaking -- is decades-old, and is likely exacerbated by technology and financial downturns.

Another small Alabama town, Fruithurst, was described as the “worst speed trap in the nation” in a series of New York Times articles in May and April 1975.

Incidentally, Bill Dawson, a lawyer representing clients alleging police abuse in Brookside, also represented clients in similar cases in Fruithurst decades ago. Dawson told me many municipal courts in Alabama are still “as abusive as can be.”

In fact, a nearly identical a lawyer representing clients alleging police abuse in Brookside, scandal unfolded in 2019 in Castleberry, Alabama, where “a police force five times larger than the national average per capita regularly uses speed traps to pull over out-of-town drivers, taking money and belongings,” AL.com reported in March that year.

The practices are a problem in every state, and are often more prevalent in rural jurisdictions with high poverty, according to a 2019 report by Governing Magazine; a 2020 report by the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School and other academic centers; and an investigation in October 2021 by the New York Times.

Castleberry’s former mayor didn’t dispute the idea that a speed trap was built to prop up the budget, admitting freely that officials “set up a court system to get some money coming in,” AL.com reported in March 2019.

Governing Magazine’s report also noted that a probate judge in Georgia alleged that the city of Cecil created a police department and court “in part to pay off a debt owed for sewer services.”

“One big problem is the law has developed in a way that gives a lot of immunity for many things these police departments do,” Dawson said.

That makes almost all lawsuits challenging police enforcement action an uphill climb, if not a lost cause altogether.

Still, there are some actions local and state authorities – in addition to DOJ -- can take to deter police departments engaged in patterns of extractive and abusive practice.

A number of states, including Arkansas, Missouri, New York and Texas, have placed caps on municipal ticket revenue, according to a 2016 law review article by Brian Scott, a partner at Barmann, Bohlen & Scott in Kankakee, Illinois.

Arkansas has even empowered district attorneys to suspend traffic enforcement, and Oklahoma has empowered the attorney general to remove traffic enforcement powers from a jurisdiction altogether.

There’s a more straightforward model for enforcement in these situations: the worst speed trap in 1970s America, in Fruithurst, was disbanded after then-Alabama attorney general William Baxley stepped in, the New York Times reported in May 1975. Baxley opened an investigation, established a makeshift office of public defenders to represent anyone charged by Fruithurst police, and sued officials in federal court.

That's a model for state officials to follow today.

(NOTE: This column has been updated to reflect the correct first name of Bill Dawson, a lawyer representing clients alleging police abuse in Brookside.)

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com