A federal court is allowing a civil rights lawsuit to move forward against three police officers in Alabama accused of pulling cars over to find reasons to fine the drivers and tow the vehicles, all part of a controversial and corrupt plan to raise revenue.
It's the latest development for the town of Brookside, Alabama, which drew national attention back in January when the Birmingham News exposed that the mayor and the police chief of the 1,500-population town built up the police force and then set them loose to fine drivers whatever amount they could. Over the course of two years, revenue from fines and forfeitures jumped more than 600 percent and accounted for more than half of Brookside's budget. People targeted by the police began to sue, accusing cops of fabricating charges in order to justify fining people and towing their cars.
The Institute for Justice has filed a class-action lawsuit against the town, some of the police, and the towing company involved to put an end to this practice. It's currently representing four plaintiffs, one of whom, Brittany Coleman, was pulled over in 2020 and handcuffed for 30 minutes while police searched her car for marijuana. They didn't find any, and she passed three field sobriety tests, but police charged her with marijuana possession anyway and towed her car.
In response to Coleman's suit, the three cops—Marcus Sellers, Mareshah Moses, and Anthony Ragsdale—requested a summary judgment from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama Southern Division dismissing the claims against them. The officers were attempting to invoke qualified immunity, the court-created doctrine that often shields cops from civil liability for violating people's rights unless it can be shown that they knew what they were doing was wrong.
On Friday, District Judge R. David Proctor rejected the officers' request. According to Proctor's ruling, body camera footage from the cops shows Sellers telling Coleman that he didn't believe she was under the influence and, therefore, unable to operate her car safely. But Sellers then huddled with the other cops and told them that he knew that Police Chief Mike Jones (who has since resigned) wanted them to tow the cars in these situations. They then charged Coleman with possession—charges that were later dropped—and towed her car. The cops tried to justify towing Coleman's car because possession of marijuana is an "incident to arrest," but they only cited her and did not take her into custody, thus undermining their own argument in favor of seizing the vehicle.
In other, words, the cops at the scene knew that they didn't have grounds for what they were doing. And so, for now, Coleman can continue to attempt to hold them accountable for targeting her.
"The district court's denial of qualified immunity is an important step in the efforts of ordinary people to hold Brookside and its officers accountable for violating their constitutional rights," said Institute for Justice Attorney Tori Clark in a statement.
But the amount of deference the courts give police officers means that this part of the fight is not over. Institute for Justice Attorney Jaba Tsitsuashvili tells Reason that the cops will have two additional appeals to convince courts they should have qualified immunity. They can also raise it at the trial as an argument, and even if they lose at the trial, they can appeal yet again on the grounds that they should have qualified immunity.
Part of the insidious nature of qualified immunity is not just how it shields cops from accountability for violating people's rights, but how many opportunities cops have to try to invoke it and how heavy the burden is for people who have been victimized by bad police behavior to hold them accountable. Coleman has won just one of several rounds in this case.