On July 26, 2022, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a Statement of Interest (SOI) in the case of Coleman v. Brookside, 2:22-cv-00423-RDP, pending in the U.S. District Court for Northern Alabama. An SOI is the DOJ’s official interpretation of the constitutional and statutory issues in a pending federal case to which the United States is not a part but has an interest. In this case, the “The United States … has an interest in addressing practices that punish people for their poverty, in violation of their constitutional rights.” An SOI lays out the DOJ’s interpretations of legal issues and how it believes courts should consider the matter. As such, it can be valuable in contexts beyond the particular case in which it was filed.
In this SOI, the DOJ writes that “under Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit precedent, the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process neutrality requirements apply to courts, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers,” and lays out a lengthy interpretation of how these principles can be applied to the facts in Brookside or other similar cases.
The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment Requires Courts to Be Impartial
- Central to the Due Process Clause is a requirement that the tribunal be neutral and impartial to ensure both the “appearance and reality of fairness.”
- At a bare minimum, judges may not profit directly or indirectly from the outcome of cases.
- In a system where (1) a municipal judge had authority over municipal violations that carry fines and fees, (2) the revenues from those fines and fees goes mostly to the benefit of the municipality, (3) the municipality’s leadership sets the judge’s salary, (4) where municipal fine and fee revenue grows by nearly 1,100% over three years and becomes 49% of the municipality’s budget, (4) where the judge’s salary increased by 127% during that same three year period, and (5) where the city council has control over the municipal court appointments, tenure, and salary, the judge’s neutrality is constitutionally undermined.
- Non-monetary incentives can also have a negative influence on judicial neutrality. Even if the judge does not personally profit, organizational and systemic benefits “where the financial health and operations of a court significantly depend on the fines and fees the presiding judge assesses—create conflicts that offend due process.”
- “Importantly, the neutrality requirement imposes a stringent rule that may preclude adjudication even by judges who have no actual bias…. Revenue schemes are unconstitutional when they create an untenable risk of bias.”
The Due Process Clause Requires Prosecutors and Police Officers to Be Impartial When Enforcing the Law
- As the nation’s highest law enforcement authority, the DOJ writes that “prosecutors, police officers, and other enforcement officers operate under impermissible conflicts when they have a significant personal financial interest—such as their salary or job security—in their enforcement responsibilities.”
- A conflict of interest of constitutional magnitude also exists if there is “a realistic possibility that [their] judgment will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain as a result of zealous enforcement efforts.”
- Determining such a law enforcement conflict of interest focuses on 3 main questions:
- Whether government officials stand to profit economically from vigorous enforcement;
- Whether the officials’ salaries are fixed by law; and
- Whether the conflicts are significant enough that they may distort the official’s judgment.
- Applying these questions to the facts as alleged in the case, the DOJ writes:
- “In short, the town attorney not only ‘stands to profit economically from vigorous enforcement’ of Brookside’s municipal code—he already has: the more cases he opts to prosecute, the more money he makes.”
- Where police retain vast amounts of the revenues from fines and forfeitures resulting from their enforcement actions and where they use that revenue to fund things such as “training, conferences, computer and software purchases, vehicle maintenance and purchases, and salaries” neutrality is threatened.
- “If, as alleged, Brookside’s police officers and town attorney are dependent on revenues from fines, fees, and forfeitures, Plaintiffs have stated a claim that these officials are impermissibly conflicted when they enforce the code violations and vehicle forfeitures that raise those funds.”
Because the DOJ submitted this SOI in response to a motion to dismiss by the defendants, it assumes that the plaintiffs allegations are true, since that is the standard of review at this stage. Should the case continue to trial, the plaintiffs will have to prove their allegations in order to prevail.
To read the full Statement of Interest, click here.
You can also read the original complaint here.