An Alabama town of just over 1,250 people saw more people arrested and accused of misdemeanors than it had residents in 2020, according to an investigation by The Birmingham News. Brookside, which is about 15 miles northeast of Birmingham, experienced a more than 640% increase in fines and forfeitures from 2018 to 2020. The number of vehicles towed jumped from 50 in 2018 to 789 in 2020, the newspaper reported on Wednesday.
Let’s call a duck a duck: The allegation here is police corruption. “Brookside officers have been accused in lawsuits of fabricating charges, using racist language and ‘making up laws’ to stack counts on passersby,” journalist John Archibald wrote. “Defendants must pay thousands in fines and fees – or pay for costly appeals to state court – and poorer residents or passersby fall into patterns of debt they cannot easily escape.”
Ramon Perez, who was ticketed for allegedly running a stop sign and driving 48 mph in a 40-mph zone, told The Birmingham News when he showed up to court on Dec. 2 to fight the tickets, there were so many people fighting citations like his that officers had to direct traffic into the court parking lot. Perez said in his case that he spotted the officer who stopped him a while before rolling past his patrol car. “I saw him and we looked eye to eye,” Perez said. “There’s no way I was going to run that stop sign.”
Carla Crowder, director of an equity and justice nonprofit dubbed Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, called Brookside a “poster child for policing for profit.”
“We are not safer because of it,” Crowder added in an interview with The Birmingham News.
Of the $1.23 million in total revenue the town produced in 2020, nearly half of it—$610,307—was from fines and forfeitures. Taxes, charges for services, intergovernmental revenue, and money from licenses and permits composed most of the town's remaining revenue, The Birmingham News reported. “This is shocking,” Crowder said. “No one can objectively look at this and conclude this is good government that is keeping us safer.”
Both Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr and Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway reported problems with the town in the newspaper. “It’s my understanding that a guy can go out there and I mean, he can fall into a black hole,” Carr said. Pettway said officers go outside of their jurisdiction to stop people. “Most of the time people get stopped, they’re going to get a ticket. And they’re saying they were nowhere near Brookside,” Pettway said.
Brookside is just one example of abuse that has been playing out on a national scale for years. The nonprofit Institute for Justice found in a 2020 report on policing for profit that civil forfeiture, the law enforcement practice of seizing property when a person is accused and not necessarily convicted of a crime, resulted in more than $3 billion in revenue in 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Justice and Treasury Departments.
New Mexico is the only state the nonprofit rated an A for abolishing civil forfeiture and instead using criminal forfeiture only in cases in which the suspect was convicted of a crime. A key aspect that makes the state’s practices noteworthy is that any money it receives from forfeiture goes back into the general fund and not into policing budgets. “The state’s overall crime rate did not rise following the reform, nor did arrest rates drop, strongly suggesting civil forfeiture is not an essential crime-fighting tool and law enforcement agencies can fulfill their mission without it,” the Institute for Justice reported.
A report from the Institute for Justice released last October found that cops who utilized civil forfeitures more often than not targeted Black and low-income communities. The survey, partially the result of a class action lawsuit, focused on Philadelphia respondents who were victims of this practice. Two thirds of the respondents were Black: “63% earned less than $50,000 annually and 18% were unemployed,” researchers wrote in the report. Researchers also found that “compared to Philadelphians overall, respondents were more often minority and lower income” and that “they also had less education and higher rates of unemployment.”
Nassir Geiger, who falls into those categories, was simply in close proximity to a drug possession arrest in northeast Philadelphia. He was pulled over and his car seized along with $580, even though police found no drugs in his car. Geiger’s case, part of a class action lawsuit, helped draw so much attention to the issue of predatory forfeitures that it led to reform measures hammered out as part of a settlement to the lawsuit, Forbes reported.
“Civil forfeiture continues to ensnare thousands of innocent people across the country each year,” the Institute for Justice reported. “This is because most states have civil forfeiture laws that make it easy and profitable for police and prosecutors to seize and forfeit people’s property.”
It, like many of America’s cruelest sins, started with slavery.
“Following the Civil War, Southern States enacted Black Codes to subjugate newly freed slaves and maintain the prewar racial hierarchy,” the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in the Timbs v. Indiana decision cited by The Birmingham News. “Among these laws’ provisions were draconian fines for violating broad proscriptions on ‘vagrancy’ and other dubious offenses.”
In filmmaker Ava DuVernay's 2016 documentary 13th, she portrayed the prison system in America as a natural continuation of slavery and its capitalistic purpose. Following the 13th Amendment, which made slavery unconstitutional in 1865 for all people excluding those convicted of crimes, southern farmers were desperate to find ways to replace the unpaid labor force slavery created. So they zeroed in on the constitutional language providing them a loophole, author Kevin Gannon said in the documentary. Slavery was unconstitutional “for all people excluding those convicted of crimes.”
“If you have that embedded in the structure, in this constitutional language, then it's there to be used as a tool for whichever purposes one wants to use it," Gannon said.
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