YouTube video

Like hundreds of thousands of other Texas motorists, Thomas Reader found himself in an unending debt spiral as a result of the state’s Drivers Responsibility Act. Due to the program’s surcharges and late fees, Reader owed $13,000 to the state—an amount he simply couldn’t pay until he was finally granted a form of amnesty. The occupational license, which was a direct result of this program, limited his ability to drive, and as a DoorDasher his increased time on the road only meant increased exposure to police looking to write tickets to secure revenue. When Reader, out of frustration, “flipped the bird” at a Texas Sheriff patrol car, officers conveniently claimed to have witnessed a traffic violation, pulling Reader over and arresting him. Taya Graham and Stephen Janis of the Police Accountability Report examine the footage in the case and its wider implications on the corrosive power of revenue-motivated policing, which is increasingly a factor in the behavior of law enforcement nationwide.

Studio Production: Stephen Janis
Post-Production: Stephe Janis, Adam Coley


Taya Graham:  Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. To do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible.

Today, we’ll achieve that goal by showing you a video of a traffic stop that led to the questionable arrest of a man who had simply shown his dissatisfaction with police by giving them the finger. But it is the abuse of power that led to the encounter, a program designed to entrap motorists, which we will be breaking down in the show. It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of incentivizing law enforcement and what happens when fines and fees are motivating cops rather than upholding the law.

But before I get started, I want you watching to know that if you have video evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at, or you can reach out to me on Facebook or Twitter @TayasBaltimore, and we might be able to investigate for you. And please like, share, and comment on our videos. It helps us get the word out and it can even help our guests. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. You see the little hearts I give out down there, and I’ve even started doing a comment of the week to show you just how much I appreciate your thoughts and to show what a great community we have.

We do have a Patreon called Accountability Report, so if you feel inspired to donate, please do. We don’t run ads or take corporate dollars, so anything you can spare is really appreciated. We always make sure to thank our patrons like Shane B., David K., John Rowe, Lucy Garcia, or Lucy P. Okay, now we’ve gotten that out of the way.

Now, one of the biggest problems with law enforcement in our country has nothing to do with enforcing the law or even the shortage of officers. What often makes American law enforcement so fraught is that it is structured around a word that seems far afield from investigating crimes, namely profit. That’s right, fees, fines, penalties, bail, you name it. It’s imperative to generate revenues that often prompt police to behave like bill collectors rather than public servants.

And no arrest embodies the bad consequences of treating cops like government-sponsored ATMs than the video I’m showing you now. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when the government turns to law enforcement for revenue, and how that emphasis can often twist the law into a tool for financial oppression. The story starts in Kerrville, Texas last year. There, Thomas Reader was working as a delivery driver for DoorDash. The job was a lifeline to help him with a problem that had little to do with his willingness to work or his commitment to the job.

Instead, his financial woes were completely the result of a government-conjured burden. That’s because Thomas had been repetitively ticketed under a program called the Driver Responsibility Act. The policy incentivizes officers to write traffic tickets to fund highway construction and emergency rooms. The program has been controversial, as you’ll learn later, and it has been halted. But that was too little too late for Thomas because he was the recipient of numerous tickets from that program for minor traffic infractions.

And because the program added fees and surcharges when drivers had trouble paying, Thomas was put in debt. And that debt was an ever-growing tab with penalties that kept piling on top of the fines, to the point where he owed –  And I’m not kidding – $13,000. But Thomas wasn’t alone. For example, in January of 2018, 1.4 million Texans had suspended licenses for not paying surcharges, and all of this boiled over for Mr. Reader when Kerrville Police pulled him over last year.

That’s when, as I said, he was driving to make a delivery when police started to follow him. He had not committed a traffic infraction. No, they targeted him because that program limits your driving abilities when you can’t pay. But Thomas, already frustrated with the constant harassment that he believes is tied to the incentives I mentioned before, exercised his constitutional right and gave the cops the finger, and that’s when they pulled him over; Not initially for a traffic violation, but because the officer said the bird drew their attention, and they used his license restricted from the debt as an excuse to further investigate him. Let’s watch.


Officer Vasquez:  Can I see your driver’s license?

Thomas Reader:  No. [Crosstalk] anything like that?

Officer Vasquez:  Okay. Go ahead and turn around for me.

Thomas Reader:  For what?

Officer Vasquez:  Go ahead.

Thomas Reader:  Sawyer, get your phone out. You pulled me over for no reason, man.

Officer Vasquez:  No, sir.

Thomas Reader:  Yeah, you can’t do this.

Officer Vasquez:  I know you’re not to have an eligible driver’s license.

Thomas Reader:  I do have an eligible driver’s license.


Taya Graham:  Now, you’ll also notice that the officer immediately accused him of driving without a proper license, and this turned out not to be true, but that didn’t stop them from slipping handcuffs on him. Let’s watch.


Thomas Reader:  You pulled me over for no reason, man.

Officer Vasquez:  No, sir.

Thomas Reader:  Yeah. You can’t do this.

Officer Vasquez:  I know you’re not to have an eligible driver’s license.

Thomas Reader:  I do have an eligible driver’s license. Do you want me to get it out?

Officer Vasquez:  Yeah. That’s why –

Thomas Reader:  You guys are making a huge mistake.

Officer Vasquez:  That’s why I asked you for your driver’s license.

Thomas Reader:  You’re making a huge mistake right now.

Officer Vasquez:  Here, step right over here real quick.

Thomas Reader:  Record, Sawyer.

Officer Vasquez:  She’s fine. She can record.

Thomas Reader:  [Crosstalk] You’re retaliating because I gave you the fucking finger. You can’t do this.

Officer Vasquez:  Just stand right here real quick.

Thomas Reader:  Man, you’re breaking every fucking law, man. You’re a piece of shit, dude. Y’all can’t do this. You are violating my rights. My license is valid. I have an occupational license.

Officer Vasquez:  Okay.

Thomas Reader:  We are DoorDash. Why am I in fucking handcuffs?

Officer Vasquez:  I just want to confirm that.

Thomas Reader:  No, you’re telling me [crosstalk]. You have no fucking [crosstalk].

Officer Vasquez:  1448-6640-1448-6640. Okay.

Thomas Reader:  Yeah. Why do you think you got the finger?

Officer Vasquez:  Do you have your occupational – Hey, do you have your occupational paperwork with you?

Thomas Reader:  It’s right there. No, I don’t. We’re DoorDashing right now and you can see we’re DoorDash.


Taya Graham:  Now, almost immediately, Mr. Reader pushes back on the officer’s assertions that he should not be driving and using, let’s say, colorful language. He did indeed have restrictions on his license due to the Driver Responsibility Act. But none of those restrictions precluded him from earning a living. Still, the police persisted.


Officer Vasquez:  Okay, but do you have your paperwork with you?

Thomas Reader:  I don’t know where my paperwork is. [Inaudible] in the car.

Officer Vasquez:  You have to have that paperwork with you.

Thomas Reader:  No. I have an occupational driver’s license.

Officer Graham:  You have to have paperwork with you.

Thomas Reader:  Y’all retaliate. You can do whatever you want.

Officer Graham:  No, sir. Do you have the paperwork?

Thomas Reader:  No, I don’t have it. I have it on my phone. I have it on my phone. I have it electronically on my phone. I already talked to the judge and he said it was okay.


Taya Graham:  Okay, as you can see, the police were simply uninterested in hearing his side of the story no matter how caustically he shared it. In fact, they kept insisting he was driving illegally. Take a listen.


Thomas Reader:  [Crosstalk] shit.

Officer Vasquez:  So you’re okay teaching your daughter to [crosstalk].

Thomas Reader:  Hell yeah. Her grandfather is a retired police officer.

Officer Vasquez:  Why don’t you do yourself a favor and just be quiet, okay? Until we get [crosstalk].

Thomas Reader:  I don’t have to be quiet.

Officer Graham:  [Talking to Sawyer] Do you have that?

Officer Vasquez:  You’re making it worse on yourself.

Thomas Reader:  I’m not making anything worse for myself. Freedom of speech, buddy. You can’t tell me to be quiet. You cannot tell me to be quiet.

Sawyer:  It’s still acting [crosstalk].

Thomas Reader:  I’m still talking. What are you going to do?

Officer Vasquez:  I’m just asking you to be quiet.

Thomas Reader:  And I refuse.

Officer Vasquez:  You have every right to refuse.

Thomas Reader:  Yeah, because you can’t tell me to be quiet. You can’t tell me what you do. I don’t have to [inaudible].

Sawyer:  [Talking to Officer Graham] I can’t get it to where you can see how many hours –

Thomas Reader:  Man, y’all are crooked, dude.

Officer Graham:  [Talking to Mr. Reader] That’s not how it works.

Thomas Reader:  Y’all messed up.

Officer Graham:  Okay.

Thomas Reader:  My license wasn’t suspended. Y’all keep harassing me, dude.

Sawyer:  [Talking to Officer Graham] One hour –


Taya Graham:  Still, even after Mr. Reader showed the officer from his phone that he did indeed have the proper license to drive his car to earn a living, these cops would not relent and they still gave him a ticket. That’s right, a man who for years had suffered with $13,000 in debt from surcharges, was now just trying to earn a living, and he was hammered with another $210 ticket. Just look.


Thomas Reader:  Did you get him recorded saying I gave him the finger and so they pulled me over?

Officer Graham:  No, sir. I actually pulled you over because you failed to signal into this parking lot. Also, I need your driver’s license for [crosstalk]. I also know that you didn’t have a good driver’s license.

Thomas Reader:  You’re retaliating because I gave you the finger.

Officer Graham:  No, sir.

Thomas Reader:  Bullshit. That’s what y’all do. That’s what you do, Graham. It’s Officer Graham and Officer Vasquez. What’s your badge number?

Officer Vasquez:  Right there.

Thomas Reader:  Let me tell the judge, asshole. It’s right there?

Officer Vasquez:  Yes, sir.

Thomas Reader:  You’re such a crooked cop man. How do you guys sleep at night when you do this shit? I gave you the finger and your egos just can’t take it, can they, bud? That’s why he put me in cuffs –

Officer Vasquez:  I don’t even know you, buddy.

Thomas Reader:  – Immediately.

Officer Vasquez:  I don’t even know you.

Thomas Reader:  That’s because you’re a piece of– I don’t [crosstalk] you’re a piece of shit, what you fucking did to me. You violate people’s rights on a daily basis. That’s what you do. You just did. “Let me see your driver’s license” and you fucking put me in cuffs immediately.

Officer Graham:  Yes, sir.

Thomas Reader:  What a piece of shit.

Officer Graham:  Is DoorDash your full-time job or do you do something else?

Thomas Reader:  Yeah, idiot. It’s not your business what I do, man.

Officer Graham:  Okay.

Thomas Reader:  Fucking pignorance is what it is. Pignorance.

Officer Graham:  [Laughs] That’s kind of good.

Thomas Reader:  You like that?

Officer Graham:  Yeah.

Thomas Reader:  I’m glad you like that, Graham. You got a little sense of humor, bitch.

Officer Graham:  Oh, you like my pig right here?

Thomas Reader:  Yeah. For my safety, I’m in fucking handcuffs, huh? Dummy. Fucking morons. Crooked ass shit. Sorry, they’re holding you up, ma’am. They don’t care about your time. Sorry ma’am. You guys don’t give a fuck about other people, do you? She’s innocent and look at you guys. You’re going to hold her fucking time up.

Officer Graham:  Who?

Thomas Reader:  Her. She’s waiting for you guys to fucking move.

Officer Graham:  If you want, your daughter could get your food delivered. If she has a driver’s license, license to drive.

Thomas Reader:  I’m talking about the lady right there in front of your car, you morons. Won’t even take these fucking cuffs for you to fucking sign shit.

Officer Graham:  Actually, are you going to sign it?

Thomas Reader:  Do I have to?

Officer Graham:  Yes, sir.

Thomas Reader:  Then I’ll fucking sign it.

Officer Graham:  Okay.


Taya Graham:  And as a result, Mr. Reader now saddled with yet another fine after struggling with those fines and surcharges for years, decided to share his displeasure with the officers. Yes, he did use colorful language and yes, the cops listened, but in the end, they just added more to his financial woes, which is perhaps why he expressed his displeasure even as the officers decided not to take him to jail. Take a look.


Thomas Reader:  Hey, you know why I’m here? Because I prepaid for my electricity and I’m -$3.

Officer Graham:  I thought you were here to drop off food.

Thomas Reader:  I’m paying electricity too [inaudible] from DoorDash right there. I got to pay my electric bill. You want to give me another fucking ticket, asshole?

Officer Graham:  So then you’re not here for purposes of your DoorDash.

Thomas Reader:  We’re just DoorDashing that apartment. So while I’m by K-Pub, I got to pay my electricity. Tell the judge that. Tell the judge that.

Officer Graham:  Again, you’re in violation of your –

Thomas Reader:  We were still DoorDashing. We’re still active. But you pulled me over. My phone is still DoorDashing right now.

Officer Graham:  Okay, but you’re not delivering any food, right?

Thomas Reader:  I can still be working. This is a hotspot too. Nice try.

Sawyer:  [To Officer Graham] Is it this?

Officer Graham:  Yeah.

Thomas Reader:  Look at you guys trying to hem somebody up here. Fuck y’all, man. All y’all care about is [inaudible].

Officer Vasquez:  It’s the words that are coming out of your mouth that are getting you –

Thomas Reader:  No, they’re not against the law. It’s called freedom of speech. One thing you don’t know, Vasquez, is the law. And you’re law enforcement? So that’s a joke. You should study law.

Officer Vasquez:  Where did you get your degree?

Thomas Reader:  You don’t have to have a degree no more than your ass. Did you get your degree too in law? Where? Exactly. Don’t know where, do you?


Taya Graham:  Now we have been investigating this program and its burdensome use of fines and the impact it’s had on people like Mr. Reader. In fact, we will be speaking to him soon about what else was going on behind the scenes when those officers pulled him over. But first, I’m going to talk to my reporting partner, Stephen Janis, who has been investigating the Texas ticket machine and why it was able to saddle motorists with insurmountable debt. Stephen, thank you so much for joining us.

Stephen Janis:  Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham:  Stephen, you’ve been looking into this program. What have you learned? What happened and why did the governor finally discontinue it?

Stephen Janis:  Well, basically what happened is it was totally out of control. It became a vicious cycle for drivers in Texas where almost 1.5 million drivers lost their license. Because what happened is that you didn’t just have to pay the ticket, you had to have a fee on top of that ticket if you had too many tickets in a certain period of time.

And then, if you didn’t pay that extra fee in 105 days, you’d lose your license. A lot of people can’t afford to pay those fees so they keep driving because they have to go to work and then they get another fee. And before you know it, it compounded so much that millions of people couldn’t drive in Texas legally. It was really out of control.

Taya Graham:  So this is not an uncommon phenomenon – Law enforcement agencies ratcheting up fines. It seems to go beyond the need to ensure public safety. What do you think drives these policies?

Stephen Janis:  It’s interesting. There’s an untold story about this particular program. There’s a thing called the Municipal Service Bureau, which is a place that collects for Texas when people can’t pay. This company, this firm, is private. They’re a private firm. So all those millions in fees, they’re getting money to collect those fees. And it turns out there have been 60 lawsuits filed in federal court against them because they harass people so much.

So, oh yeah, this is a great program, we’re collecting money for the trauma center. But really what we’re doing is enriching private companies who can collect and done people because they haven’t paid their ticket fees, which is bad enough when you can’t even drive. It’s a way of enriching the private sector too, and we can’t forget that about these programs.

Taya Graham:  Now, these fine-driven programs tend to be focused on the working class and can have devastating impacts on the people who can least afford it. What does the research say?

Stephen Janis:  Well, the research lines up exactly with your question, Taya. It’s pretty freaking straightforward that the people who can least afford it, like people who are working people, living paycheck to paycheck, are the ones who end up losing their license. Just look at our guest; He had $10,000 he had paid in fines and he still had another $13,000 to pay. It was insane.

How can a man survive? How can a man pay his bills when he’s got to pay $10,000 just to get behind the wheel? This is truly a tax on the poor, the impoverished people who are working and struggling. It is not a beneficial program for society. It does not even help drivers because it turns out that only 12% of the people who lost their licenses were people who committed some sort of DUI or some sort of serious infraction. The other 88% were just people who were speeding or something.

It wasn’t getting to the root of the problem it was designed to solve. It’s a total and utter mess. Taya, let me just say this before I go. I want you to watch carefully. When this cop says he pulled him over for not turning on a signal, the cop was going in the opposite direction. But notice we’re showing you with arrows here, that he was indeed giving the finger, and then the cop turns around. There’s no way, from his perspective, unless he had a very, very, very good telescope-quality rearview mirror, he could have seen the man not signaling. This was about getting the finger from a man and trying to show, hey, we’re in charge. You can’t push back against us.

Taya Graham:  And now to learn how police have been targeting him and the impact this questionable overreach has had on his life, I’m joined by Mr. Reader. Thomas, thank you so much for joining me.

Thomas Reader:  Thank you for your time. I’m a big fan.

Taya Graham:  Well, thank you, Thomas. That’s very kind. First, please tell me why were you allegedly pulled over during the traffic stop we have been showing on the screen. What did the police say?

Thomas Reader:  Well, they allegedly said they pulled me over for driving while with a suspended license, although I have an occupational. Yes, ma’am, and I was working at the time.

Taya Graham:  Could you explain what an occupational license is?

Thomas Reader:  It means your license is still suspended but you can drive for essential purposes like going to and from work, picking your kids up from school, and medical reasons. I DoorDash for a living, so I drive all the time. That’s part of my work.

Taya Graham:  You said to the officer, you pulled me over because I flipped you the bird. What did he say in response and how did he react to that assertion?

Thomas Reader:  Well, Officer Vasquez is the one that said that got their attention and we have it recorded. And so I was glad we got that recorded. But he said that he pulled me over initially because he thought it was invalid, but he didn’t even mention the bird. Officer Graham wouldn’t mention that. Officer Vasquez was the one who mentioned that.

Taya Graham:  Were you surprised that you were put in cuffs for a traffic infraction?

Thomas Reader:  Yes, ma’am. First, I didn’t see any lights. All I saw was them do a U-turn and I was going to pay my electric bill, so I was already parked. I was getting out of the car to pay my electric bill and saw them behind me. All I did was get out of the car and put my hands in the air. I never advanced towards them or anything. He said give me your driver’s license. I said something like, what for? And immediately, I was put in handcuffs.

Taya Graham:  Now you seem pretty annoyed with the officers disrupting your workday for something petty like this. As you mentioned, your livelihood is tied to driving. Does it cost you money or time to unravel these tickets or can you explain why you were so upset? Was it the money or was it something else?

Thomas Reader:  Basically, it was for getting arrested out of my house for supposedly driving while invalid. Although, I never received a citation, or any notification by mail, nothing. The only notification I got was police knocking on my door telling me I had to come out or I’d be also arrested for resisting without violence. That’s why I started getting upset and started giving cops the bird just to let them know my displeasure with what they had done.

Taya Graham:  Okay, so you’re telling me the police pulled you out of your home, put you in a car, and took you to jail for an alleged traffic violation? What happened next? How did you feel and how long were you in jail for?

Thomas Reader:  About three and a half hours. I felt very helpless. I couldn’t believe they could come to my house for, first off, an invalid driver’s license, and secondly, I had never gotten a ticket for it, so I was stunned and wondering where this had come from.

Taya Graham:  Now, you were pulled over just a few days ago. Can you tell me exactly what happened?

Thomas Reader:  Yes, ma’am. I was working, I was DoorDashing. I was waiting at McDonald’s for an order because that’s a hotspot, and a police officer was across the street getting gas, instead of leaving, she pulled a U-turn and faced me across the street. I thought nothing of it. Ironically enough, I got a Burger King order where she was parked and went to get my order. When I pulled out I wanted to thank her for an officer that had done me a favor and she immediately tried to initiate a traffic stop saying I was driving while suspended.

Taya Graham:  That seems like overkill to me.

Thomas Reader:  She said there was no infraction. She said she just ran my tags because that’s what she does. There was no infraction except that I was operating a motor vehicle on a public roadway while suspended. Although, occupational does come up when she calls dispatch.

Taya Graham:  This shows me that once you’re pulled into the system, the system still keeps pulling you back in and taking money and time.

Thomas Reader:  Yeah, we don’t live in town anymore. We had to move seven miles out into the country because I didn’t want to live in Kerrville anymore. I did also find out that while I was pulled over, I was arrested out of my house for a driver’s license, I later found out it was because an officer had pulled me over two months prior for a headlight out, although my headlight was not out. We got it on video and that’s when he said I was suspended.

My daughter was in the car and I was like, I’m not suspended. He goes, yeah, you are. You had a failure to appear today. I was like, no I didn’t. I called and had it reset. I have the email right here. He would not look at it, but he insisted I was suspended, didn’t give me a ticket for it, just gave me a ticket for the failure to change my address of all things because my headlight was working. He was the one because at the end he goes, I’m going to give you a break this time.

I was like, oh my God, can I lick your boots? Please, please let me lick those boots. My daughter has it on video. He was very offended then, so after he let me go, he went to the county attorney and had her put in a warrant for my arrest for driving.

Taya Graham:  So it does seem that these officers were offended by the way you expressed your First Amendment rights. Something I have to ask you is, are you at all concerned that talking to me will make things more difficult for you and your relationship with the local police?

Thomas Reader:  Not at all. I just want to get them exposed. I just want somebody to hear my story. I’m sure it goes on all over Kerrville. People get pulled over for no signal all the time. Officer Graham has bragged about it in the courtroom. I have people that have told me. It’s a small town, so I have friends who work there and he jokes about it. If I can’t find something, I’m going to get you for no signal. We got him on dash cam lying about it, so we got it dismissed and then that’s when we filed our 1983.

Taya Graham:  Now let me ask you something. There are some people who are watching this that might ask, what if someone flipped you off while you were working? How would you feel or react? Personally, I have to say putting someone in handcuffs and threatening them with an arrest might be what you want to do to someone who hurt your feelings, but it’s probably not appropriate. How do you respond to someone who says, how would you feel if the role was reversed?

Thomas Reader:  Well, if I was just in my normal capacity DoorDashing, then I would probably give the bird right back. But if I’m a public servant, I’d be expected to have a standard professionalism that these guys need to have and they didn’t have it. They retaliate and it’s obvious, the retaliation.

Taya Graham:  You must believe that since you filed a 1983 lawsuit your constitutional rights were violated by these officers. What would you like to see result of this? Or for example, would you like the officers to go through retraining or maybe you’d even want an apology from the officers who cuffed you? What would you like to see happen?

Thomas Reader:  I would like an apology from Officer Graham. I know Officer Vasquez was involved in the stop also, but it was Officer Graham who whipped the U-turn and decided to put me in cuffs. I think Officer Vasquez was just… If you notice him in the video, he is trying to stay out of it, kind of. Even when I’m in cuffs, if you notice I’m kind of standing by myself in cuffs, and you’re supposed to be holding the prisoner or whatever, if I fall in custody… So they’re known to be close and Vasquez didn’t want no part of it. It was Officer Graham. I’d like an apology from him and I would definitely like retraining.

I’d like for police all over the nation to not hear when you pull a car full of people over, you need to get everybody’s ID. They’re told that every morning probably before they leave to go get their donuts that hey, you better get everybody’s ID. So they’re under pressure from their sergeant and you can tell when they pull someone over, it’s like crack. They want that ID so bad.

I even said it on the last video, that five-minute video when I got pulled over last week – It’s like crack you guys. You just can’t let it go. And so, I finally had enough and I want them to be retrained. I’d like to be compensated. I’ve lost a lot of money. We got evicted from our last house because I was afraid to drive because I’d go to jail and I can’t DoorDash. I’m a single dad of three kids.

Their mom has been absent for three years. They’ve seen her one time in three years. So it’s just me and the kids, that’s my livelihood. I try to work in DoorDash to make money and I couldn’t drive for a month and a half just in fear of being pulled over. So we got evicted and had to move seven miles out of the town, which I’m glad we did. That was voluntary, but thank God we found a house. My friend let us move into his house and everything’s been good since.

Taya Graham:  I’m really glad you mentioned your family because I think it’s important for officers to know that these arrests have an impact not just on you but the people who you put food on the table for. That this is not just a matter of a man’s pride, but these tickets and arrests interfere with your livelihood and your ability to be a provider and a father.

Now as we have recounted in both the interview with Mr. Reader and Stephen’s reporting on our nation’s traffic fine industrial complex, there is a trend in this country that is both troubling and on the rise. It’s a transformation of our public institutions from agents of public good to agencies premised on profit. In other words, governance that was intended to serve some greater purpose has ended up becoming cash machines to public coffers for pensions, luxury cop cars, and other forms of wasteful overspending.

It’s an evolution that often goes unnoticed, a transformation of the ethos of governance that explains the lack of faith Americans have in those same institutions. It’s a malaise that needs to be understood so that we can demand better and expect better. Just consider for a moment a slew of new legislations across the country, premised upon the concept of making bail less affordable. That is, new laws creating burdensome costs for people who are swept into a system through no fault of their own.

Let’s remember that, as many of our previous guests have explained on the show, bail often becomes the punishment inflicted upon the innocent. It’s a penalty without recourse assessed on people who are already struggling economically and do not get refunded even if the underlying arrest was illegal, unjust, or otherwise unnecessary. This imposition of fines upon the innocent is not a meager wealth extraction mechanism.

A study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that of 600,000 people locked up in local jails in 2016, nearly 70% were pretrial, meaning that they could not afford to pay the bail to be free until their case was adjudicated. This is a number that has barely nudged since. It points to a serious problem, which is this: Our constitutional right to be punished only after due process has a price tag and it’s quite steep.

In 2022, large insurance companies netted roughly $2.4 billion in profits, charging fees to make people pay bail payments. The same study shows that the money is extracted from people who can ill afford it. That’s because more than half of the people in jail awaiting trial earn in the bottom third percentile of income for all Americans. But there is a bright spot in this story.

Across the country, community activists have acted collectively to help people overcome the onerous bail imposed by the government and grassroots organizers who are trying to fight the corporate takeover of our justice system. Known as bail funds, the groups raise money to assist people who cannot make bail without assistance. They have sprung up across the country specifically to help protestors who are subject to arrest by police for exercising their constitutional rights and often find themselves subject to excessive bail, all designed to infringe upon their ability to dissent.

We spoke to one of the most active funds in the country when we traveled to Atlanta to cover the ongoing protests over the construction of Cop City. Cop City of course is the $90 million plan funded by Fortune 500 companies to tear down an old-growth forest outside Atlanta to construct a veritable ‘coptopia.’ The facility is planned to have a fake city to practice military-style training, classrooms, a club, an auditorium, and even onsite housing for law enforcement, which is ironic in a city that is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis it has not been able to solve.

Still, the protestors have continued to fight against the project, and law enforcement has effectively criminalized their efforts as a result, charging people with RICO and domestic terrorism. To fight back, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund has sought to help those who find themselves charged. In fact, we spoke to one of the key people involved in their efforts, Marlon Kautz, and he explained to us how they were using grassroots organizing to help activists overcome the system, which wants to silence them.

Marlon Kautz:  What they’re trying to do is very clearly establish a precedent which says that based on your political convictions and your beliefs, you could be considered a member of a criminal organization and charged for crimes which you had nothing to do with, aside from agreeing with the politics of a movement.

Taya Graham:  Several months after this interview, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested Marlon and two other people who had run the fund. They were charged, wait for it, for using funds raised through an umbrella group dedicated to stopping Cop City, to pay for bail for jailed activists. The total sum in question? $5,000. That’s right, $5,000 to stop a $90 million corporate-funded training center for school police on how to use military-style tactics against civilians.

I’m not kidding, but it’s getting worse. Much worse. The efforts by the small band of Atlanta activists to fight the system armed with guns and badges and hundreds of millions of dollars have warranted even more action. The state government has stepped in too; Legislators are pushing to put an even steeper price tag on our constitutional rights that would pretty much make them an a la carte selection from an extremely expensive fascist-run restaurant.

That’s because the state senate in its infinite wisdom, has decided to impose even more punitive obstacles to obtaining bail. It has made cash bail mandatory for a variety of crimes including marijuana possession and unlawful assembly. Seriously, it’ll achieve these goals by making roughly 30 crimes eligible for no-money bail. What that means is that people charged with these crimes will not be able to use a bail bondsman, which is already usury enough. Instead, they’ll have to put up cash only to be freed before their trial.

What that means is that if a judge sets a $10,000 bail, you have to pay $10,000 cash upfront. What this legislation does is say to pay up or sit in a cell before you have your day in court. Isn’t that the opposite of innocent until proven guilty? Won’t that force people to endure the punishment before being convicted of the crime? The bill would also impose limits on bail funds to make bail less burdensome. It would prohibit them from bailing out no more than three people a year, effectively ending the ability of these same funds to operate. Georgia is not the only state trying to pass similar laws. Several other states, including Virginia, have bills that impose cash bail or severely limit the activity of bail funds.

It’s a countrywide effort that is gaining steam that will essentially put an increasingly expensive price tag on our basic right to petition the government. How many people will speak their minds and peaceably assemble and protest if they know it could cost them thousands or that they could sit in jail for months before getting a trial? That’s what disturbs me the most about the series of efforts to prohibit protest – What it says about the true state of civil rights in our country that was founded upon them.

It’s a state-sponsored pushback that is both dangerous and offensive. Because, like I noted at the beginning of this rant, government officials when faced with pushback from citizens like Mr. Reader and others, seem to turn to the same tool that allows them to diminish our rights without actually doing so directly. What I mean is that the powers that be have learned how to use a mechanism that makes the erosion of our ability to push back not only more difficult but nearly impossible for anyone other than the wealthy. They are doing so by charging us to exercise our rights. They want to make our rights prohibitively expensive. As I said before, they want to put a price tag on the rights enumerated in the Constitution that we simply cannot pay. They want to make being an American citizen as expensive as possible, an interesting idea in a country already accustomed to paying the highest prices for things like education and healthcare.

Let’s think of it as a civil rights toll system; Each time you try to exercise your right, you get charged. Just to note, they haven’t yet come up with an easy pass system that allows you to glide through and pay later. No, these excise taxes are all paid upfront. Can we foresee a future envisioned by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, where all US citizens will have to sign a Terms of Service Agreement to access their rights to the Constitution? A dystopian society where, like his character in Ubik, ends up having to pay to use a door on an appliance and the door won’t let him open it until he pays a fee. When he refuses and tries to pry it open, the door threatens to sue him.

It’s a perfect metaphor for the world of fines, fees, bail, and other charges we are living in today. Is it that farfetched that this process of charging us to use our right only escalates, that politicians will continue to devise enough new levies that we will have to carry around a constitutional debit card that will be charged to us each time we show up to protest, seek a jury trial, or simply want to walk down a sidewalk and shout without interference from police?

Are we that far from a world of fee-for-service citizenship? I don’t think so. In a sense, we are already living in it, even without the bills I mentioned becoming law. Consider the guests we’ve had on the show; How many were innocent but had to pay bail, hire lawyers, and hand over fees and fines even though they had never committed a crime? How many ended up paying fees for the right of presumption of innocence?

I can’t even count the number of people who reach out to us who are struggling to fight back against law enforcement, whose biggest impediment is not the law, but their bank accounts. It’s a disturbing reality to contemplate. What is more ideally democratic than raising money to bail out people who’ve been wrongly incarcerated for protesting? What is less democratic than allowing the government to cage people for a fine?

To me, it’s another way our government has devised a way to restrict our agency. A frightening law imposed Cash App for our rights that allows them to dole them out, but charge us for the privilege. To me, there seems to be no limit to their greed and no checks, so to speak, on their rapacious desire to take what is rightfully ours and charge us to access our human rights.

Remember, we live in a country where despite the Fourth Amendment, the government can seize your property without charging you with a crime and make you prove in court that they should give it back. They can come onto your property, take your belongings, and make you pay for the honor of reclaiming what’s rightfully yours known under the benign title, Civil Asset Forfeiture.

When we see a man yelling at the cops, we have to remember that his frustration is more than the result of a ticket. It’s a consequence of turning law enforcement into profit extraction. It is the result of allowing cops to act as debt collectors, allowing them to infringe upon our freedom, and then charge us if we want it back. It’s like a pay-for-play democracy. The question is, how much are we willing to fork over before we finally say enough?

I want to thank Thomas Reader for coming forward and sharing his experience with us. Thank you, Thomas. And of course, I have to thank intrepid reporter, Stephen Janis, for his writing, research, and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.

Stephen Janis:  Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham:  I want to thank friends and mods of the show, Noli D. and Lacey R. for their support. Thank you. And a very special thanks to our Accountability Report Patreons. We appreciate you and I look forward to thanking each and every one of you personally in our next live stream, especially Patreon Associate Producers; John E.R., David K., Louis P., Lucy Garcia, and super-friends Shane B., Kenneth K., Pineapple Girl, Matter of Rights, and Chris R.

I want you watching to know that if you have video evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us @Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or @EyesOnPolice on Twitter. And of course, you can always message me directly @TayasBaltimore on Twitter or Facebook.

Please like and comment. I really do read your comments and appreciate them. Of course, we have the Patreon link pinned in the comments below for Accountability Report. If you feel inspired to donate, please do. We don’t run ads or take corporate dollars, so anything can spare is truly appreciated. My name is Taya Graham and I’m your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award winning investigative reporter turned documentary filmmaker. His first feature film, The Friendliest Town was distributed by Gravitas Ventures and won an award of distinction from The Impact Doc Film Festival, and a humanitarian award from The Indie Film Fest. He is the co-host and creator of The Police Accountability Report on The Real News Network, which has received more than 10,000,000 views on YouTube. His work as a reporter has been featured on a variety of national shows including the Netflix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries, Dead of Night on Investigation Discovery Channel, Relentless on NBC, and Sins of the City on TV One.

He has co-authored several books on policing, corruption, and the root causes of violence including Why Do We Kill: The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore and You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths about Policing in Baltimore and Beyond. He is also the co-host of the true crime podcast Land of the Unsolved. Prior to joining The Real News, Janis won three Capital Emmys for investigative series working as an investigative producer for WBFF. Follow him on Twitter.