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This week on Making Contact, we bring you a story from our podcast partners, 70 Million titled Highway Robbery: How a Small-Town Traffic Trap Became A Legal Black Hole. About 20 minutes north of Birmingham, Alabama, on Interstate 22, is the working-class town of Brookside. Its almost 1300 residents make it about the size of a large high school. According to the 2020 census, Brookside’s population is mostly White and 21% are Black. On paper, it’s a lot like other small towns in this part of Alabama. That is, until 2022, when Brookside became infamous for, of all things, a traffic trap.
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- John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist
- Sandra Harris
- Town Hall Speaker 1
- Leah Nelson, research director for the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
- Bill Dawson, a criminal, and civil rights lawyer from Birmingham
- Adam Danneman, the head of the Public Defender’s office in Jefferson County
- Joanna Weiss
- Blue Dot Session – Curiously, Curiously
- Quiet Orchestra – My Friends
70 Million Staff:
- Episode Reporter: Rhana Natour
- Editor: Monica Lopez and Juleyka Lantigua
- Host: Mitzi Miller
- Sound Designer: Erica Huang
- Photo Editor: Michelle Baker
- Staff Writer and Designer: Kori Doran
- Lead Fact Checker: Haylee Millikan
- Lead Producer: Pamela Kirkland
- Episode Photographer: Amarr Croskey
- Creator/Executive Producer: Juleyka Lantigua
Making Contact Staff:
- Hosts: Anita Johnson
- Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
- Executive Director: Jina Chung
- Senior Producer: Jessica Partnow
- Engineer: Jeff Emtman
Johnson: Welcome to Making Contact, I’m Anita Johnson. This week, we bring you a story from our podcast partners, 70 Million.
About 20 minutes north of Birmingham, Alabama, on Interstate 22, is the working-class town of Brookside. Its almost 1300 residents make it about the size of a large high school. According to the 2020 census, Brookside’s population is mostly White. 21% are Black. Fewer than 100 of its residents are college graduates. On paper, it’s a lot like other small towns in this part of Alabama. That is, until 2022, when Brookside became infamous for, of all things, a traffic trap. The sheer scale of the trap, the type of tickets issued by Brookside police, for driving in the left lane, for example, and the nature of the interactions motorists reported having with police caused outrage among residents and caught the attention of a reporter named John Archibald.
Archibald: Brookside in 2018, for example, is making $82,000 in fines and fees, and two years later, that number reached $610,000.
Johnson: In Brookside several lawsuits are pending including one from Sandra Harris. Who said she feared for her life during an interaction with a police officer.
Harris: I still think about it. I still relive it. Sometimes I go in my little space area and I just cry to God. What did I do to get to be treated like this?
Johnson: Reporter Rhana Natour takes us to Brookside, Alabama, where drivers who were caught up in this dragnet are speaking out about their experiences.
Brookside in 2018, for example, is making $82,000 in fines and fees, and two years later, that number reached $610,000.
In Brookside several lawsuits are pending including one from Sandra Harris. Who said she feared for her life during an interaction with a police officer.
I still think about it. I still relive it. Sometimes I go in my little space area and I just cry to God. What did I do to get to be treated like this?
Johnson: Reporter Rhana Natour takes us to Brookside, Alabama, where drivers who were caught up in this dragnet are speaking out about their experiences.
I love law enforcement. I don’t have anything but good things. Never been afraid until I hit Brookside
During two emotional town halls in February, 2022, about 200 people showed up to discuss what was an open secret in these parts. The aggressive traffic trap in Brookside, Alabama. Motorist hearsay. Their experience in Brookside was more akin to getting caught in a black hole, one that was rigged to take their car, their money, and as many would later argue their constitutional rights.
To patrol this trap, Brookside Police Department purchased a fleet of black unmarked cars. They hired over a dozen police officers who were hard to identify as law enforcement. Police uniforms usually have a very visible town or department name, not Brookside.
Their uniforms were blank. I’m trying to see ’em, and I don’t see a name tag, nor do I see a badge I got. Addressed by the men in black because when I asked their names, they told me they was Agent J and Agent K.
But what most people came to these town halls to talk about was Brookside fees. Ticket fees, court fees, tow fees, all kinds of fees.
Here, say $5,000 for an improper light. I mean it is. Here in the print, I have a payment plan, $850 a month.
And when I went to pay for the ticket in Brookside, they charged me $270. My wife had called Birmingham and they said it was a $45 ticket. Come on. That’s ridiculous.
And for those who couldn’t afford to pay these fees.
Hi, I am Ashley. I live right outside Brookside at Forestdale Mobile Home Park.
According to Alabama law, they risk jail time.
I don’t have the money, I’m struggling. My husband said, can I get on a payment plan? Officer Jones grabbed him by the arm, drug him to the clerk and said, you need to pay it, or you’re going to get 30 days in jail on $275.
Unraveling the story of Brookside requires some digging on the surface. It’s a story about a small southern town and its traffic trap, but underneath that story are a series of surprising discoveries about a state with a long history of finding residents for minor crimes and the people who say they nearly lost their lives and their livelihoods after encounters with Brookside Police people who.
Are fighting back there is any way, I’d like to say the city of Brookside government is involved. The Judge Wooten.
State representative Wanda Lyn Gavan convene the town halls after an article appeared on the website al.com, written by John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.
As a reporter, there’s this feeling you get sometimes when you’re looking for something and all of a sudden you see this one thing that makes the hair on the back of your next stand up and you say, wow, I’ve got something here.
Archibald uncovered internal financial records that revealed how this small town dragnet worked.
I was looking at audits and, and they showed that from 2018 to 2020, revenue from fines and forfeitures increased 640%. That 640% increase. Meant that fines and forfeitures accounted for 49% of this little town’s revenue, which is astonishing.
Uh, I mean, Ferguson, Missouri caught hell because, you know, they had more than 20% fines and fees and this was at 50.
Brookside is among a cluster of small towns most motorists only pass through while driving on Interstate 22, a highway built a decade ago to connect Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee.
Any business people have in Brookside almost certainly centers around one large plaza on a treeline country road. It’s where you can find the dollar. General Brook side’s only retail shop. All right darling. 88 11 and it is the home of Brookside Town Hall that houses the mayor’s office, the town jail, the police department, and Brookside Municipal Court.
This building would become the epicenter of the town’s traffic trap controversy. So how did the small Alabama town end up making national headlines for traffic stops in Alabama using traffic fines to generate government income? Has a storied history in Brookside. Things seemed to change with the arrival of its new police chief Mike Jones in 2018.
Brookside was a one man police department. The council and mayor decided they wanted to have a so-called professional police department. So they hired Mike Jones, who essentially promised them he could build a department. But what they got was a professional money raising department. Brookside itself only has six miles of roads and no traffic lights.
So to raise this money, Jones set his sights on Interstate 22. More specifically, the one and a half mile treeline patch of it that ran through Brookside. He realized that he could bring in a lot of money by stopping people on the very small stretch of interstate that goes through Brookside and just started bringing in thousands and thousands of dollars and using that money to hire more police, who then stopped people on noncrime, like driving in the left lane, which is legal.
You’re allowed to drive in the left lane, but they would pull people over and kind of shake them down basically. That’s Leah Nelson, research director for the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. The number of arrests in Brookside would soon skyrocket in 2020. Brookside police made more misdemeanor arrests than the town had residents averaging more than four arrests for every household.
A lot of the arrests came in for things like rolling a stop sign. Then you were likely searched and if you were searched, that means they brought their drug sniffing dogs, including one named cash to search a car, and they would often find reason to arrest you on multiple charges. Beside the revenue Brookside generated from traffic citations and the fees connected to arrest, the city also collected fines by towing cars.
Now in most places, towing a car during a traffic stop is reserved for specific circumstances, mainly impaired drivers or those with a suspended driver’s license. But motorists in Brookside say their cars were towed from minor infractions or reasons that seemed made up in a two year span. The number of cars Brookside police towed went from 50 to over seven 50.
Motorists who had their vehicles towed, say getting their car back was unusually difficult. A $175 fee to the Brookside Court just to find out where their car was. Then a 20 minute drive to pay another $175 to Jets towing. A towing an impound company Brookside used exclusively. The fees and daily impound charges.
Left many residents in debt and carless, and according to several pending lawsuits, some drivers were missing valuable items or worse. Here’s John Archibald young woman who worked as a waitress. Her van was taken and towed. She couldn’t get Brookside to tell her where the van was, and so ultimately she even hired a lawyer.
But, uh, by the time they found out that the car had been towed to Jet’s towing, the car had already been auctioned off, and we’re still unable to sort of determine whether that was Brookside or whether that was the towing company or who got the money. Or why it was done, but she doesn’t have her car. I visited Jet’s Towing as I reported this episode, so it says it’s closed even though it’s business hours right now, but there’s no signage, so I don’t even know if I’m in the right spot.
This must be it.
Thank you for calling Walker. This is Lisa. How can I help you? Hi Lisa. Can I speak to Jay Twell please? I reached someone by phone, Jay Tidwell, a lawyer who represents Jet’s Towing and is speaking on behalf of the owner, Wayne Jett. The way that this all transpired is he, he did a job that he charged for his job, so he, he was very shocked that, you know, him being named a part of this.
Was there ever a contract between Brookside and Jets? Was it, was it ever like he was a vendor or a contractor to the city? No, there was not, and he was not. It’s just like a third party service that says, hey. We’re gonna make some arrests and we need some people to tow these vehicles when we make an arrest.
And he said, yeah, he’d be willing to do it. And when they said, Hey, we got a vehicle that needs towing, he’d go towing. You know, he didn’t have any other information other than basically that reporter John Archibald heard otherwise from motorists he spoke to. People who were stopped by police and saw, uh, a wrecker show up at the same time.
First of all, they were shocked, but they were also angry because, because it appeared that their car being towed was for ordained. And when Archibald sat down with the Mayor of Brookside, Mike Bryan, and Police Chief Mike Jones, to present his findings, he says they had a surprising reaction. Pride. The chief at the time now.
I told him, you know, that jumps off the page. 640% increase, half the budget. And he said, that’s not enough. It should be more if we had people out there working and Mike Jones continued to say this is a good news story. And all the mayor did was sit and nod. He sat and nodded. In 2019, the plot thickened when Brookside saw its first lawsuit from a motorist that included allegations of racism and police misconduct.
A 2022 Urban Institute report found that Alabama more than any other state, relies on traffic fines and court fees to generate revenue to fund state services. The state relies so heavily on this revenue that the fines and Fees act as a
hidden regressive tax on Alabamians and in Alabama. It all started with the end of slavery.
By 1849 before the US Civil War, slave labor and taxes on slave owners made Alabama, one of the wealthiest states in the union. The slave tax, as it was called, is thought to have been the largest. Single source of funding for Alabama State government, at least 46% of its revenue base. In 1882, an Alabama slave holder would be taxed $1 for every enslaved person who was older than 10 and 25 cents for everyone younger.
When slavery was abolished, the state needed a new tax base and one very powerful segment of the population ensured they would not be it. Here’s Leah Nelson with the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice in Alabama. We have a state constitution that was drafted in 1901 explicitly. For the purpose of ensuring that wealthy white landowners would pay very little in taxes on that land.
The Constitution makes it very hard to raise taxes. It’s just, it’s a mess. So we have created this elaborate system of fines and fees as an alternative tax structure to bring in revenue to pace pay for basic state functions. And bad actors like Brookside have been able to exploit that, to really shake people down.
But fundamentally, that’s how our state is funded. Nelson says The fines and fees fund all kinds of things in Alabama. So I’m gonna give you an example from fiscal year 2017. The judicial system took in almost $90 million in fines, fees, and court costs. $14.2 million. Stayed in the judicial system, so they paid for court things, $75.2 million went to everything else to the general fund.
To the Department of Conservation, to the Department of Correction, the State Department of Education, the Department of Public Health, municipalities, miscellaneous assessments, whatever those are. The state’s penalties for not paying these fines are harsh. In 2018, Nelson conducted a survey of nearly 1000 people to see how traffic fines played out in people’s everyday lives.
50% of the people that I surveyed had been jailed for non-payment of court debt, so they were making desperate choices because something even worse. Lay ahead. About 83% of the people that I surveyed had given up some kind of basic needs, so they didn’t pay their utility bill or their car note or for, they didn’t pay for medicine so that they could service their debt to the state.
These measures are familiar to reform advocates and to people who had run-ins with rigged justice systems. But Nelson’s survey revealed something more sinister. 38% of them admitted to me that they had committed another crime in order to. Get the money they needed to pay their fines and fees. And the reason they did this is because they faced the threat of incarceration
before the al.com story broke. There were people who noticed signs of change in Brookside, stories of aggressive policing, an uptick in police stops. One of those residents is Sandra Harris. It was almost a hundred cars in that parking lot. The scene at Brookside monthly municipal court hearings was Harris’ first indication that something was not right.
And I’m thinking, hold up. It’s too many people here. Why are these people here? When Harris pulled into municipal court to fight a ticket, an unusually long line greeted her and I went and I started knocking on people windows and asking them why were they here for court? I mean, you had people there for a small crack windshield, you had people there for the same reason I was there.
Bill Dawson, a criminal and civil rights lawyer from Birmingham grew suspicious. When he got a call from a colleague in need of a favor, said, I want you to represent my niece. She was pulled over in Brookside on something that isn’t even a violation of the law and given a ticket, ended up they had charged 415 people with driving in the left lane on an interstate, which is not a crime.
What was your reaction when you saw that? Well, that I needed to stop it. Alabama State law bars small municipalities like Brookside from issuing speeding tickets on the interstate. So the Brookside Police Department ticketed drivers for other types of infractions, minor violations, or things that arguably weren’t violations at all.
Adam Danon, the head of the Public Defender’s office in Jefferson County, noticed odd patterns in cases coming out of Brookside. I think the pattern that I tend to see the most was routine traffic stops turning into fishing expeditions. To find something bigger than that, I. Danon also noticed that police reports would often include phrases that allowed police officers to search people’s cars without their permission.
Sweaty hands. Sweaty hands have been the basis for more than a couple of Brookside searches. A lot of cars in driving through Brookside smell like weeded. That’s important because in Alabama marijuana is illegal. Even outside of Alabama does remain a a basis to perform a warrantless search of a car.
Danon and his colleagues at the county Public defender’s office decided they would not make plea deals on Brookside cases. It is extremely rare to take an entire department and say Red Flag the entire department, but we did on Brookside.
Okay. I was trying to find my book. I.
This one, Sandra Harris, whose daughter lives in Brookside, was pulled over by Brookside Police on I 22 on January 8th, 2021. She was so convinced that she would be killed that night that when she did make it home, she immediately recorded her experience in a binder. That I just decided. I said, Hey, I gotta put this book together so people would not think that I was lying about the whole situation.
So I collected all my information in this book, every detail from the arrest, all the way up to the court date. Everything that my husband and my father paid to actually get me outta jail. I had to pay, of course, the 2 35 bail bondsman to bond me out just to get me outta jail. The 1 75 was for information to actually find out where my car was located for some.
This level of documentation may seem like an overreaction. Harris has no criminal history, and she wasn’t being pulled over for a serious offense, so why did she feel compelled to write it all down in such detail? Data from police interactions back up her instincts. A 2021 New York Times investigation found that police officers killed over 400 drivers during the past five years who had not been under pursuit for violent crimes and were not yielding a gun or a knife that’s over one killing per week.
Of course. The names of Black Motorists who were killed after what started as a minor traffic stop have become synonymous with a national reckoning on race and policing. Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and there were hour long stretches when Harris, who was black was convinced that her name would be added to this list.
Harris’s Evening began uneventfully on her way to Brookside to visit her daughter and two grandchildren when an unmarked Brookside police car pulled her over. Harris recalled that the police officer, who she says had no nameplate or badge number seemed irritated. He was angry at dis rage in his eyes.
He told her she was being pulled over for casting her lights. And I said, casting my lights. I said, well, it’s getting dark. I simply turned my lights on. And he said, no, gimme your license and your insurance. And as I reached for my insurance papers, he backs back and say, don’t you do it, don’t you do it?
And I dropped my hand and I hold him up and I said, do what? What am I doing? And he said, get out the car. And I said, no, I’m not getting out the car. My husband was on the phone the whole time and my husband was like, baby, just get out the car. I said, no, I’m scared. Another officer arrived on the scene. As soon as this, the second officer came, he snatched open my door and he yanked me out the car.
At that point, I’m being arrested. They slammed me against the car. I had my phone still in my hand, and I dialed 9 1 1. Harris says she called 9 1 1 because she was desperate to document what she feared might happen to her next. I literally thought I was gonna be dead that night. My thought process was, To let somebody know if they kill me.
I want this on video. I’m recording that. At least I did try to get some help. Sandra Harris was taken to the Brookside jail and asked to submit to a cavity search. She refused at first. Then Harris says that arresting officer made a chilling threat. They actually stated to me that they would actually take me in the woods and nobody would find me.
A light bulb clicked in my mind. You better take your clothes off. Go ahead on and let them search you soon. Harris says she began to have a full-blown panic attack. My asthma started acting up and my blood pressure is really high, and I’m feeling like I’m about to just croak over. I need my asthma pump.
Can you please go in my purse, get my asthma pump? He wouldn’t do it. He said, if you’re not gonna gimme my asthma, asthma pump, I need you to call the ambulance or you’re gonna have death on your hands. She says, the ambulance arrived 30 minutes later and the reaction from first responders was not what Harris expected.
The fire department came in, they took my blood pressure and he told the officer, or chief or whoever he was, he said, I’m gonna have to take her in. How do you want me to call it? He goes off and whispered this to him and I’m like, I can’t breathe. What do you mean? How do you want him to call it? That particular police officer said, I’ll take her myself.
I said, the only way I’m gonna go is you take me in an ambulance and they will not.
Harris’s husband and father bailed her out by dawn and gave her the asthma medication, but the ordeal was not over. Brookside PD lopped six charges at her, including resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and falsely calling 9 1 1. Harris would later sue Brookside,
but it wasn’t easy to find a lawyer who would take her case.
When John Archibald, the al.com journalist published his findings in January, 2022, the article went viral and it seemed for a while, like Brookside was going to be held accountable. Here is Leah Nelson on some of the fallout. Almost immediately, people who who owed fines and fees or who had pending charges in Brookside started seeing immediate accountability and immediate redress.
Soon after that. The district attorney who oversees felony cases that come out of Brookside dropped any felony case where there was not a victim, but things that where the only witness was the police. I, the district attorney said, you know what? I don’t trust these police. They’ve shown themselves that they believe that they’re above the law, and I don’t think I can move forward with a charge that’s based only on their no longer credible statements.
In light of the Brookside scandal, the Alabama state legislature passed two laws in Spring 2022. One cap. The amount of money a municipality can keep from fines and fees to just 10% of its budget, and another law that requires them to report this income. Mike Jones Brookside, chief of Police resigned, but the accountability hasn’t gone as far as Nelson and some of the motorists stopped by Brookside would like.
Brookside Mayor who is not up for reelection until 2024 is still in power. The town still has its police force, despite calls from residents and state officials to disband it, neither Mike Bryan or Interim Police Chief Henry Irby responded to my request for comment or to questions about their evidence or the review of Officer Seller’s conduct.
John Archibald thinks there is a bigger reason for Attorney General Marshall’s silence. I think it goes all back to the way we fund our entire judicial system, because when you start interfering with the ability to give tickets, rightly or wrongly, then you start messing with people’s budgets. 17 or more different agencies are dependent upon that money from fines and fees.
Archibald: So every one of those agencies, including the attorney General’s office, including the district attorneys, including all of these systems, rely on that. And if it doesn’t happen, if, if enough people aren’t stopped, then they don’t have the basic foundation of their budgets. In August, 2022, the Department of Justice indicated it is watching what happens in Brookside closely.
Natour: Here’s Leah Nelson. The Institute for Justice has sort of taken the lead together with a local, really legendary civil rights attorney named Bill Dawson. So they’re suing on behalf of two putative classes of plaintiffs who have suffered predation, um, from the towing company and from the police, and the United States Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in that case.
Nelson: I’m just gonna read the first sentence of their statement of interest. Courts, prosecutors, and police should be driven by justice, not revenue. That’s a pretty bold statement about what they think is going on in Brookside. What I think is going on in Brookside, I think it matters that the United States Department of Justice has made this case something that they’re taking time to step in on.
Natour: Here’s Joanna Vice. I think the tragedy of Brookside, Alabama is that eight years after all we learned from Ferguson. The same thing was happening in Brookside, Alabama, and is happening in many places around the country. It is, again, a case of a police department, a municipal court, and city hall conspiring together to use fines and fees to support the revenue of a city to the detriment of its population.
For Sandra Harris, a long awaited moment of redemption came when the Brookside scandal made national news, but they’re still living with the aftermath of their encounters with Brookside Police. Here’s Sandra Harris. I mean, I had to take anxiety pills behind this because. Constantly thinking about it.
Harris: You, you won’t know unless you’ve been through it. Really know the feeling of being stripped, searched, thinking that, um, you are going to die. This is your last day. You won’t know that feeling until you get in that situation.
Johnson: Harris says two of her tickets were dismissed in Brookside including that ‘casting a light’ ticket which she was originally pulled over for. In total, she has paid over $1200 in fines and court costs so far.
In the months following the media attention that exposed the Brookside’s traffic trap, more than half of the town’s force (including Police Chief Mike Jones) resigned, were fired, or were arrested, while over a hundred cases were thrown out. The town’s harsh and discriminatory policing practices are now being challenged in federal court by a class-action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice.
And although these efforts will help reduce Brooksides’ exploitation of drivers, there still exists a culture in the town, that puts profits over people.
For Making Contact, I’m Anita Johnson