An investigation into a small-town police force’s use of fines and civil forfeitures has revealed that cops in Brookside, Alabama have taken marijuana prohibition to a new level, with multiple charges filed for low-level marijuana possession charges. The tactics, defense attorneys maintain, are “unheard of.”
The investigation published by Al.com earlier this month revealed allegations that Brookside police officers have been routinely pulling over motorists on specious and even trumped-up charges, leading to an increase in fines and civil forfeitures that is padding the city’s coffers. Motorist Ramon Perez said that he was given a ticket for running a stop sign, even though he saw the police car and looked the officer in the eye as he brought his vehicle to a complete stop. Another driver was ticketed for driving two miles per hour over the speed limit, according to Slate.
Sandra Jo Harris alleged in a lawsuit that she ended up in jail over a police officer’s claim that she had flickered her car’s lights to warn approaching drivers of a possible speed trap, an assertion she denies. Police charged the 52-year-old grandmother with resisting arrest and “nuisance of casting lights from motor vehicle on real property at night,” a charge that was later dropped.
Motorists who attempted to fight tickets they believed were unfounded were met with lines out the door on the one day a month the municipal court was in session. Those who complained on Facebook about the treatment they received from Brookside officers were pulled over again and threatened with retaliation, according to the Al.com investigation.
Many Traffic Stops Made Outside City Limits
Many of the motorists who claim they were ticketed unfairly were travelling Interstate 22, 1.5 miles of which runs through Brookside, a town of only 1,253 residents. But many say they were not within the city limits of the town and its six miles of roadway when they were pulled over by Brookside police, an assertion confirmed by Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway.
“We get calls about Brookside quite regularly because they really go outside their jurisdiction to stop people,” Pettway said. “Most of the time people get stopped, they’re going to get a ticket. And they’re saying they were nowhere near Brookside.”
The beefed-up enforcement along Interstate 22 was reportedly initiated by former chief of police Mike Jones, who was hired in 2018 and was the only full-time officer on the force at the time. By the summer of 2021, Jones had hired an additional eight officers and several who worked part-time, he revealed in a deposition.
Jones replied to charges that his officers were writing tickets for alleged violations committed out of his department’s jurisdiction in an email to Michelle Jones, who faced a ticket in 2019 for running a stop sign across Interstate 22 from Brookside. She has denied the charge and filed a complaint with the Alabama attorney general’s office.
“A Peace Officer sworn in the State of Alabama can enforce the law anywhere in the State of Alabama,” the chief wrote, as reported by Al.com. “They are sworn Law Enforcement Officers certified by the Alabama Peace Officers Standards Training (sic) Commission. Arrest powers are not confined to city limits or jurisdictional boundaries except within the State of Alabama.”
Before the hiring blitz, Brookside’s one full-time officer and several part-timers patrolled the city and its stretch of Interstate 22, writing tickets worth about $82,467 in fines. But fines and forfeitures doubled between 2018 and 2019, and in 2020 totaled $610,000, representing 49% of Brookside’s total revenue.
Carla Crowder, the director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a nonprofit focused on justice and equity, characterized the situation in Brookside as “shocking.”
“No one can objectively look at this and conclude this is good government that is keeping us safer,” she said.
Crowder also said that debt can sometimes lead people to turn to illegal activities, adding that “an argument can be made that this kind of policing creates crime.”
Between 2018 and 2020, the town’s total income increased from $582,000 to more than $1.2 million, as fines and forfeitures in Brookside jumped 640%. Jones, apparently, saw the boosted enforcement as a benefit for the town, saying he’d like to see even more growth from fines and forfeitures.
“I see a 600% increase – that’s a failure. If you had more officers and more productivity you’d have more,” Jones said. “I think it could be more.”
But he insists that generating revenue is not the reason for the increased enforcement and the police department’s goal is simply to help people.
“It’s not about making a dollar,” Jones said.
One Joint, Two Charges
Once officers had pulled over a motorist along Interstate 22, they used the pretense of real or made-up traffic violations to look for other offenses, the months-long investigation by Al.com revealed. Long low-hanging fruit for cops intent on taking someone to jail, low-level charges for marijuana-related offenses also came into play in some of the traffic stops uncovered by the investigation. And by stacking offenses in a manner never before seen by defense attorneys in the area, Brookside police maximized the charges filed against defendants, putting them at risk of paying higher fines or spending more time behind bars.
Lawyer Martin Weinberg said that his client, Thomas Hall, had been stopped by Brookside police for speeding when officers discovered a small amount of marijuana. But police were apparently not content with the misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession they filed. Hall also faced five counts of possession of drug paraphernalia for rolling papers, cigar wraps, the plastic bag that contained the marijuana, a small jar that “that once may have held marijuana” and a tray that “might have” been used to roll a joint.
Bill Dawson, an attorney representing several clients with cases from Brookside, said defendants caught with a joint faced two charges, one for marijuana possession and another for possession of drug paraphernalia—for the rolling paper containing the weed.
“I’ve never seen a possession case split like that,” Dawson said. “It’s unheard of.”
Crowder of the Appleseed Center said that “Brookside is a poster child for policing for profit.”
“We are not safer because of it,” she added.
The fines levied for all the dubious traffic violations and marijuana charges can have a devasting financial toll on those affected. And those who choose to fight face thousands of dollars in appeals costs.
“It’s my understanding that a guy can go out there and I mean, he can fall into a black hole,” Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr said of the financial mess some drivers face. “You know, we’ve had a lot of issues with Brookside.”
It’s Time For Change
Jones resigned after Al.com’s investigation was made public and is rightfully out of a job. Brookside faces at least five lawsuits over claims of police improprieties including officers fabricating charges and using racist language in their encounters with the public. But the situation also illustrates the cudgel that police continue to create out of laws prohibiting marijuana. It’s a weapon that all too often is wielded with bias, with the poor and communities of color bearing the brunt of its force.
The racial disparity in cannabis arrests in the United States has been well documented for decades, despite research consistently showing that the different racial groups use marijuana at a similar rate. In a 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, researchers noted that arrests for marijuana possession were down 18% since 2010, a decline largely fueled by cannabis legalization in several states. But police still made six million such arrests between 2010 and 2018, and Black people were more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people in all 50 states, including those that have legalized marijuana.
“On average, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates,” the ACLU wrote in its report. “Just as before, such racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests exist across the country, in every state, in counties large and small, urban and rural, wealthy and poor, and with large and small Black populations.”
As long as we continue to make marijuana a crime in the United States, police who are so inclined will have an easy avenue to harass and persecute people—often at a cost far higher than the offense ostensibly poses to our communities. We can not be a truly free society until we legalize cannabis nationwide. The time is now.