Civil Asset Forfeiture

Police Chief of Alabama Town That Was Getting Fat on Fines Steps Down Amid Bipartisan Outrage

Last week, Chief Mike Jones defended his campaign of fining everybody in sight. This week, he resigned.

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The police chief that defended a small Alabama town's rapacious fining of drivers has resigned following media coverage and outraged calls for action from both Democratic and Republican state officials.

The tiny town of Brookside, with a population of less than 1,500, became a national news story last week when John Archibald of the Birmingham News reported that its mayor and Police Chief Mike Jones had embarked on a system of ramping up fines and forfeitures to bankroll its government. Archibald calculated that the town's revenue nearly tripled across four years entirely from these fines, targeting primarily anybody passing through or nearby Brookside on Interstate 22.

This wasn't just a speed trap to catch the unwary. The town is facing at least five federal lawsuits from people who claim that the police fabricated charges and retaliated against those who complained. The monthly traffic court was swamped with people attempting to fight or resolve traffic charges. By 2020, half of the town's $1.2 million in annual revenue was coming from fines and forfeiture, and the money was being funneled to a disproportionately large police force for a small town.

Jones defended the town's predatory practices to Archibald, seeing the mass fining as a "positive story" and saying he'd be able to get even more money with more officers. Within a week of Archibald publishing his story, Jones had resigned. Archibald wasn't able to reach Jones for an explanation, and the town itself would only confirm he was gone.

It turns out everybody else understood the corruption problems with police going around fining people solely for the purpose of funding the police department. Both the state's lieutenant governor (a Republican) and the chair of the state's Democratic Party said they're going to work on legislation to try to stop overly aggressive small-town policing that attempts to milk fines from drivers. There's already a law in the state that stops cities with populations of less than 19,000 from stopping speeders on interstate highways. Brookside's police have adapted to the rule by looking for any other possible justification to pull somebody over instead of speeding, like accusing drivers of following too closely or driving in the left lane (rather than just passing). Lawmakers are considering a bill to ban small police forces from ticketing highway drivers at all.

That would be good—pulling over drivers for minor traffic violations that aren't actual safety threats creates unnecessary opportunities for conflict as it is.

One of the ideas lawmakers noted is the possibility of directing the revenue for fines and forfeitures away from police and general city funds. That's a great thought that's worth exploring. Police being able to keep what they seize is one of the primary motivators for fine and forfeiture abuse, and it's obvious to everybody except for the mayor and the police department that's what was happening in Brookside. Without that incentive, the police would not be sniffing around every single car it comes across for a potential score. And, incidentally, a town of 1,500 people with no traffic lights and only one store probably wouldn't be able to afford 10 police officers, each driving a fancy vehicle.