A federal court has allowed a civil rights lawsuit against three Alabama police officers accused of pulling over cars to find grounds for ticketing drivers and towing vehicles, all part of a controversial and corrupt revenue-raising scheme.
It’s the latest development for the town of Brookside, Alabama, which drew national attention back in January when Birmingham News revealed that the mayor and police chief of the town of 1,500 had built up a police force and then turned it loose to fine drivers any amount. In two years, revenue from fines and forfeitures jumped more than 600 percent and made up more than half of Brookside’s budget. People targeted by the police began suing, accusing the officers of making up charges to justify fining people and towing their cars.
The Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, part of the police department and the towing company involved to end the practice. She currently represents four plaintiffs, one of whom, Brittany Coleman, was pulled over and handcuffed for 30 minutes in 2020 while police searched her car for marijuana. They found none and she passed three field sobriety tests, but the police still charged her with possession of marijuana and towed her car.
In response to Coleman’s lawsuit, the three police officers—Marcus Sellers, Mareshah Moses, and Anthony Ragsdale—moved for summary judgment from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama Southern Division, dismissing the claims against them. The officers tried to invoke qualified immunity, a court-created doctrine that often shields police officers from civil liability for human rights violations unless it can be proven they knew what they were doing was wrong.
District Judge R. David Proctor denied the officers’ request on Friday. According to Proctor’s decision, body camera footage from officers shows Sellers telling Coleman that he did not believe she was under the influence and therefore unable to drive her car safely. But Sellers then huddled with the other officers and told them he knew Police Chief Mike Jones (who has since resigned) wanted them to pull cars over in those situations. They then charged Coleman with larceny — a charge that was later dropped — and towed her car. The officers 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, undermining their own argument in favor of impounding the vehicle.
In other words, the officers on the scene knew they had no reason to do what they were doing. And so, for now, Coleman can continue to try to hold them accountable for targeting her.
“The district court’s denial of qualified immunity is an important step in ordinary people’s efforts to hold Brookside and its officials accountable for violating their constitutional rights,” Institute for Justice attorney Tori Clark said in a statement.
But the level of deference the courts give police officers means that part of the fight is far from over. The lawyer of the Institute for Justice Jaba Tsitsuashvili informed about it Reason that the police officers will have two more appeals to convince the courts that they should have qualified immunity. They can also bring it up in court as an argument, and even if they lose in court, they can appeal again on the grounds that they should have qualified immunity.
Part of the insidious nature of qualified immunity is not only how it shields police officers from liability for human rights violations, but also how many opportunities police officers have to try to exercise it and how heavy the burden is on people who are victims of misconduct POLICE. hold them accountable. Coleman won only one of several rounds in this case.