By Leah Nelson, Research Director from the Appleseed report Afterward


On a rainy Thursday in early March, Alabama Appleseed sat down in the offices of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (¡HICA!) with 11 women who were victims of violent crime. Over tacos, we asked them to take our survey and invited them to talk with us about their experiences with violence and its aftermath. 

All the women spoke Spanish more fluently than they spoke English, so we provided a Spanish-language version of the survey (translated by ¡HICA!) and facilitated the conversation in Spanish. A bilingual interpreter took contemporaneous notes translating participants’ comments into English, and the author of this report debriefed afterwards with the Spanish-speaking facilitator to ensure that as little was lost in translation as possible.

To fill in knowledge gaps and develop an understanding of trends, Appleseed also spoke with several members of ¡HICA!’s Strong Families Program, who provide support to Hispanic Alabama residents who have experienced violent victimization. 

The Spanish-language version of our survey was almost identical in content to the English-language version, but after consulting with the experts at ¡HICA!, we determined it did not make sense to merge the results of the two surveys or rely on the Spanish-language survey to meaningfully document what participants have lived through. Although the words were translated accurately, the Spanish speakers who took our survey have significant experiences that the survey was not designed to capture. For instance, for undocumented immigrants, any contact with the criminal legal system can trigger deportation, but the section of our survey designed to document the experiences of people who are justice-involved does not get at that reality. Nor was our survey designed to account for the fact that many of ¡HICA!’s clients undertook dangerous journeys to flee violence and broken justice systems in the countries where they spent their youths. They live with trauma related to those experiences.

¡HICA!’s Strong Families clients often have that trauma compounded in the United States – first through violent victimization, then by the systems putatively in place to respond to it. Victim’s advocates at ¡HICA! said their constituents are vulnerable to predation and violence because of language barriers, immigration status, and bigotry. Many are afraid to call the authorities out of fear that contact with the law could trigger deportation proceedings, or because they or people they know have been treated callously in the past by law enforcement officials who make no secret of the fact that they consider Hispanic immigrants undeserving of equal protection.

¡HICA! stressed that law enforcement practices vary around the state and observed that some jurisdictions are doing better than others to meet the needs of the immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities they serve. Prosecutors in the Birmingham and Bessemer divisions of Jefferson County, and police and Department of Human Resources staff in Shelby County, have done substantial work to become more inclusive and culturally competent, ¡HICA! said.

But challenges remain, especially in rural areas. Many law enforcement agencies have no protocol for securing interpreters. Officers frequently use young children as interpreters. In one instance, the English-speaking husband of a Spanish-speaking woman who had been attacked and raped was made to describe her injuries to police in detail, which worsened the trauma and horror of the rape.

Some officers refuse to take reports because of language barriers. In an incident that disappointed ¡HICA!, a mother of six called police after her partner strangled her twice in a single day. Two deputies showed up, but they refused to take a police report because the woman, for whom English is a second language, used the word “argument” to describe the incident instead of the word “fight.” The woman fled her home with her children and still has not returned because she fears for their lives. 

¡HICA! made sure the woman’s injuries were documented, and eventually police opened a case. But their refusal to take a report on the spot because of language issues undermined their credibility with both the victim and community members who heard about what happened.  “In our community, when someone has a bad experience, everyone will know about it,” said Angelica Melendez, who leads ¡HICA!’s victim advocacy work.

Contact with the system can even backfire, Melendez said. ¡HICA! once told a woman whose intimate partner violated a Protection from Abuse order (PFA) to go to the police station to file a report. While she was there, officers asked her for identification. She didn’t have any. When she drove out of the police station, an officer followed her. “Pulled her over. Took her car. Left her in the middle of the road with her child,” said Melendez.

¡HICA! paid to get the car out of impoundment, but the whole incident undermined their work with that specific victim – and beyond. “How in the world, if somebody goes to file a police report because a PFA was violated and she was in danger, how are you more worried about the fact that the person didn’t show you an ID than the safety of the person?” Melendez said. “When things like that happen, people don’t even trust us.”

Below, we share stories from victims who spoke up during our community conversation. This documentation would not have been possible without the work of Facilitator Catherine Alexander-Wright, Interpreter/Notetaker Giovanna Hernandez-Martinez, and ¡HICA!  Strong Families advocates including Angelica Melendez, Adriana Alderete, and Ana Ockert.

“They are hunting us.”

In 2022, a spate of robberies targeting families and workers at construction sites rocked Jefferson County’s Hispanic community. More than 40 Hispanic residents of Jefferson County were robbed in October alone, including six people in five separate incidents on a single day. 

¡HICA! explained that many of the people they serve do not have bank accounts and keep their money in cash because of their immigration status and lack of ID. A woman who joined our community conversation expanded on that: “We feel more vulnerable as Hispanics, because they know that we’re scared to call the police. They are hunting us because they know that a lot of Hispanics working in construction, they cash their checks at the gas station, and we carry a lot of cash. We are easy for them to target.” 

The Birmingham Police Department includes some Spanish-speaking officers who encouraged victims to report these incidents, and police have charged several suspects. But a woman who called police after her husband and father-in-law were held at gunpoint and lost their IDs, wallets, phones, cash, and equipment on one of these incidents told our community conversation that the officers who arrived on the scene were shockingly insensitive to the trauma her family had just experience. 

They “just kind of laughed and said ‘Oh, we got four more [victims],’” she said. “Like it was funny.”

“Only because I cannot speak English, I cannot explain things.”

One of the women in the conversation recounted a chilling experience in Chilton County, a largely rural central Alabama county where 8.1% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino – a rate higher than the overall Alabama rate of 4.8%. 

The woman, C, lives in Chilton County with her partner and her children. C’s partner is physically abusive, and one day in early 2023 C’s daughter called 911 because the partner was strangling C. 

C’s partner was still restraining C when police showed up, but he also had marks on him from where C had fought back to save her own life.

The partner speaks English; C does not. He leveraged the language barrier to his advantage, making a police report against C before she had a chance to get an interpreter who could help her. Even though a recording from the 911 call makes it clear that C’s partner was strangling her, the fact that he was able to make a police report first has put her in a disadvantaged and dangerous position. Chilton County law enforcement put C in jail and filed charges against her. She bonded out, but her status as a defendant became an obstacle to securing safety.

Police refused ¡HICA!’s efforts to help C file a Protection From Abuse (PFA) order, saying that because she was the defendant in the case and had not filed a police report (which was impossible due to the lack of an interpreter), she was ineligible for their help. After she was arrested, the children’s father took custody of them. She has not been able to get them back. She is afraid to return home, and police told her they would not help. 

C wept as she shared her frustration, fear, and grief. “To the sheriff, I am the aggressor. Only because I cannot speak English, I cannot explain things,” she said. “To this day, I cannot get my kids back, because I am labeled the ‘aggressor.’”

Aftermath of a murder

One of the women who joined our group had recently lost her son to homicide. Although her home address was on her son’s driver’s license (which police had in their custody), police didn’t come to notify her that he was dead. Instead, she learned about his murder from social media and confirmed it with a funeral home.

Her son was a U.S. citizen and left behind a child. The child’s grandmother is his next of kin, but because she is undocumented, she is not eligible for victim’s compensation or other funding she could use to help her grandchild. But because the woman’s son was not married to the child’s mother, there is no legal connection between them, so the mother of the child is not entitled to compensation either.

The murdered man’s grieving mother is working on getting documents that will allow her to become a citizen. All she wants, she said, is to get compensation so she can provide for the grandchild whose dead father no longer can. 

By Leah Nelson, Research Director from the Appleseed report Afterward


Summer Sturdivant, an activist and pastry chef from Selma, Ala., watched her little brother die. He lay in the street while the police captured the man who shot him. The ambulance made a wrong turn, doubled back, arrived when he was still alive but got there too late to keep him that way. 

Sturdivant, then 25, didn’t have time to digest any of it. “It was like the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Trying to make sure my mom’s OK, trying to make sure everybody’s OK.”

When she spoke with Appleseed nearly a year later, she was still consumed with that task. Her brother left behind a very young son, and after her brother died, she became the little boy’s primary caregiver, responsible for food and clothing and doctor’s appointments but without access to state support because of legal obstacles and a bureaucracy that is ill-suited to the realities of her everyday life 

Her family was also worried about the money they still owed the funeral home for the cost of the burial. They applied for assistance from the Alabama Crime Victim’s Compensation Commission, which offers financial help to crime victims and their families. A year later, the Commission still hadn’t gotten back to them and the funeral home was threatening to take them to Small Claims Court.

The victims’ services workers Sturdivant interacted with seemed busy and distracted, uninterested in the particulars of her family’s needs or the depth of their grief. Sturdivant said that death by violence is “so normalized in this area,” that victims’ advocates have become used to it. 

“It’s a lot to bury a child and even be worried about where the money is coming from, then worry about whether you’re going to get to small claims court,” she said. “It just makes you feel like you’re on an island.” 

“I’m thankful to be connected to people that pour into me.”

Long before her brother was killed, Sturdivant was active with Mothers and Men Against All Violence In Solidarity (MAAVIS), an organization founded by Callie Greer, who also works as Alabama Appleseed’s Community Navigator. 

MAAVIS brings together families who have experienced loss to help them process their grief together – over meals, through song, through art, through community, through activism. With the goal of building a more restorative community and defusing the retaliatory violence that can occur in the wake of a homicide, it also creates space for people to connect safely with the families of those who harmed their loved ones, if that is what they want to do. 

Sturdivant relied on what she learned from Greer and MAAVIS when, the day after her brother died, the mother of the man who killed him reached out, wanting to talk with Sturdivant’s mother.

“I was like, No, my mom is not in a place for that,” Sturdivant said. “So I spoke with her, and I had a prayer with her. We talked, and I let her know she’s a good mom,” she said. “She was crying because she lost somebody too, you know? She lost a child who – he might not be dead, but he’s in the system for good now.” 

She wishes people who work for that system had the same compassion. “When you’re handling families and specifically Black families, you got to be careful. You got to be really careful how you talk to them,” she said. 

Sturdivant is handling her struggles with grace. Even as she continued to deal with the bureaucratic, financial, and emotional aftermath of her brother’s death and the sudden experience of parenthood, she also let herself find joy in building her small business as a pastry chef while maintaining and strengthening the relationships she formed through her work with MAAVIS. Her brother always encouraged her dreams of baking, and her business, which she said “was birthed out of a loss.”

Reflecting on a community event she attended with other women who had lost loved ones to violence, she said, “I’m thankful to be connected to people that pour into me. To be the baby of directly affected women and still be able to give and even pour into other people.” 

Incarcerated 37 years for burglary convictions, Larry Garrett has been given a second chance at life thanks to Appleseed’s legal team.

By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director


Larry Garrett leaves Holman Correctional Facility after spending 37 years incarcerated. Photo credit Leah Nelson.

The second-to-last time Larry Garrett left prison was about seven years ago, in a helicopter that flew him to a hospital in Mobile where he was treated for life-threatening stab wounds. Doctors there patched him up and sent him back to prison. He expected to die there: Death in prison is what a sentence of life without parole means.

The last time he left prison was on Dec. 19, 2022. After shaking hands with the warden, he walked out the front gate, a free man at age 68, with the rest of his life ahead of him.

Mr. Garrett with Appleseed Research Director Leah Nelson and Staff Attorney Scott Fuqua outside of Holman Correctional Facility. Photo credit Scott Fuqua.

I was there with my colleague Scott Fuqua, the lawyer whose petition and persistence led to Mr. Garrett’s reversal of fortune. Scott left Birmingham at 5:00 that morning and picked me up in Montgomery on his way south to Atmore, which is home to three prisons, a casino owned by the Poarch Creek Band of Indians who were Alabama’s original inhabitants, a gas station that sells an assortment of Confederate, gun, and Jesus-themed hats, and not much else. We’d been told Mr. Garrett would be released at 8:30 AM and wanted to arrive in plenty of time to make sure he had fresh civilian clothing to wear when he walked out the door. 

To make your presence known at Holman, you get out of your car, cross the parking lot on foot, and holler at a guard in a tall brick tower until you get his attention. I hollered while Scott handed Mr. Garrett’s new clothing to the warden as he walked in. 

It would be three hours before Mr. Garrett was finally released. Scott and I passed the time by watching an orange cat and her kittens make their way back and forth through the coil of barbed wire that forms part of the multilayered fence separating Holman from the free world. 

The cats, three of what Mr. Garrett estimates to be at least 40 who live on the premises, represent the only part of Holman’s population that is growing. When I first started working with incarcerated people in Alabama in 2012, Holman was one of the most populous and violent prisons in the state, a maximum-security facility that housed most of Alabama’s 200-plus death row inmates as well as nearly 1,000 more incarcerated individuals. 

Larry Garrett over a month after his release. Photo credit Bernard Troncale.

Mr. Garrett spent 37 years there and at other Alabama prisons. For nearly four decades, he rose at 2:30 each morning to work in kitchens, where he baked the bread that formed a major part of his fellow prisoners’ diets. 

He lost that job in January 2020 when Holman was decommissioned and mostly shut down because its physical infrastructure had collapsed under the stress of continuous overcrowding and neglect by the state. Today, only death row and a small dorm survive what was once known as one of America’s most dangerous prisons. Food preparation happens offsite at one of the two other prisons in Atmore.

A chaplain, his daughter, and the power of forgiveness

His vocation as a baker was the first thing I learned about Mr. Garrett. The person who told me, Tracey Browder, did so as we walked behind my then-seven-year-old daughter Naomi, who was learning to ride on a horse named Star at the Browder family’s property on the west side of Montgomery.

Naomi and Tracey Browder at the Browder family’s farm. Photo credit Leah Nelson.

Star, like most of the other horses on the property, is a rescue horse. The Browders take them in from owners unable or unwilling to care for them well. The property sits in an unpromising corner of the city: To get there, you pass several abandoned motels and a truck stop before turning right between a welding shop and a place where people leave cars to be sold for scrap. Drive about an eighth of a mile and you will come upon an oasis. The horses, who are cared for by a few of the formerly incarcerated men who now live on the property along with some of the Browder family, will come up to the fence to greet you. More than likely, Tracey will also be there, along with some local teenagers who train and help keep the horses in shape by riding them fast across the alley and around the pond in the woods.

In 2020, when Naomi was six years old and the pandemic was the only thing anyone could think about, she espoused a wish to ride. Growing up in Connecticut, I thought of riding as an exclusive hobby for rich people. But in Alabama, it’s much more accessible and affordable. It was hard to say no to a child from whom normalcy had been snatched mid-kindergarten and who simply wanted to do a nice outdoor activity. I’m friends with Tracey’s sister, and when I saw her ads for “More Than A Horse Farm” on Facebook, I decided to let Naomi give it a whirl. 

And so it happened that over the course of many dusty and hot and muddy and cold and perfect and beautiful weekend mornings, I learned from Tracey the story of Larry Garrett, who she called the Bread Man of Holman.  

Tracey knew Mr. Garrett the same way she knows scores of men incarcerated in Alabama. Together with her father Curtis “Chap” Browder, she and the Browder family run a ministry that is in and out of nearly every men’s prison in Alabama, bringing red velvet cake, barbeque and other homemade food along with unconditional affection for the incarcerated men. 

The ministry, which at 45 is older than I am, has its roots in Chap’s 1978 appointment by then-Governor George Wallace as the first Black prison chaplain in Alabama. One of Chap’s first tasks on taking that job was to minister to Robert Chambliss, one of several Klansmen responsible for the 1964 terrorist attack on Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls. 

Tracey Browder and Mr. Garrett embrace after his release. Photo credit Leah Nelson.

Chap grew up in Birmingham, attending the same schools and living in the same neighborhood as the families of those girls. He left Alabama not long after their murder. As he tells it, he departed full of hatred for white people. He told himself that if he ever met the men who set those bombs, he would kill them. 

When the time came, though, he instead found himself praying with one of them. In that moment, he says, he made a decision to forgive instead of holding on to the past. He describes that decision, and the shared prayer that followed, as one of the most powerful experiences in his life. 

Today, Chap and his family occupy an unusual place in Alabama’s prisons, which are so violent and deadly that the U.S. Justice Department under then-U.S. Attorney William Barr sued them for violating prisoners’ rights to live free from cruel and unusual punishment. In 2022, 266 people died in our prisons. Many of those were preventable deaths: homicide, suicide, overdose. Stabbings like the one that led to Mr. Garrett’s 2015 evacuation to a Mobile hospital are routine. Sexual assault, extortion, and torture are the norm.  

When justice also means freedom

I’m not a lawyer, and I try not to pressure Appleseed’s legal team with my vision or hopes for specific incarcerated people. Their job is difficult and highly specialized: As a small office, we can only take a few cases at a time, and no one needs to hear from me that I want someone in particular on their docket. It’s too much pressure and there are so many deserving candidates sentenced to die in prison under Alabama’s excessively harsh Habitual Felony Offender Act.  

But Bread Man was compelling – and, crucially, he met the requirements Appleseed has for Second Chance clients: The sentence he received in 1985 would be illegal under current Alabama law, and no crime he has ever committed, including the conviction that triggered his Life Without Parole sentence, has resulted in physical harm. More than anything else, those factors are what made it possible for our small legal team to take his case and win his freedom.  

They investigated and discovered that if Mr. Garrett were sentenced today, the longest term he could receive would be 20 years in prison. They also learned that he entered a plea to the 1985 burglary that prompted his sentence, meaning he gave up his right to a trial only to be sentenced to the harshest possible sentence available. 

Mr. Garrett with Leah Nelson on the Browder family’s farm. Photo credit Scott Fuqua.

And they found that, in the opinions of the people closest to him, Mr. Garrett was ready for freedom. The corrections officer who supervised his work in the kitchen starting in 2002 called him an outstanding worker and leader. Of his ability to overcome in a prison where conditions are so malignant that in 2016 some of the incarcerated men rioted, she wrote that he “work[s] great with inmates” and his relationships with staff are “great, great, great.”  

The prison chaplain called him an “integral part” of Holman’s honor program whose “long hours and dedication … have brought the program to where it is today.” And his younger brother Marshall, who sent Mr. Garrett money and spoke with him several times a week during his 37 years in the system, said he was prepared to offer him a home and a job at his Talladega auto repair shop.

“The primary responsibility of a prosecutor is to seek justice,” the District Attorney wrote in his Nov. 29 response to Mr. Garrett’s petition to be resentenced to time served. “[T]he state believes that the interests of justice in this case would be best served by permitting resentencing or entering an amendment of sentence.”

On Dec. 15, a judge entered an order resentencing Mr. Garrett to time served. Four days later, Scott and I rose before dawn to bring him to the re-entry facility where he’ll spend a few months reacclimating to life outside before moving in with his brother. On the way home, we stopped at Chap’s farm, where Mr. Garrett was reunited with Tracey and spent some time with Star and the other rescue horses.

Three of Appleseed’s recently released clients Willie Ingram, Larry Garrett, and Lee Davis. Together, they served a combined 115 years in Alabama prisons. All are living safely at Shepherd’s Fold reentry ministry and flourishing in Appleseed’ re-entry program, which provides extensive wrap-around services, including assistance with obtaining identification, transportation, meals, and connections to medical care and social security. Photo credit Bernard Troncale.

A couple years ago when I told Naomi the animals at Chap’s were rescue horses, she was stunned. “Horses that rescue people?” she asked me. “How?” I explained that it was the other way around; the horses were not the rescue-ers but the rescue-ees, taken out of dangerous situations by people who cared about their wellbeing and brought to a place where they could be happy and free. 

In the end, we were both right.

By Eddie Burkhalter and Leah Nelson


Public outcry over the arrest of an 82-year-old Valley woman for $77 in unpaid garbage bills was swift, but records show the city has for decades arrested people over unpaid trash bills.  

Martha Menefield’s arrest three days after Thanksgiving, made international headlines. The charge against her was dropped after Menefield, on Dec. 5, paid the $77 and an additional $35 in court costs, records show. But an investigation by Alabama Appleseed and other outlets indicates that Menefield was but one of many victims of Valley’s trash police. 

This pattern of deploying police officers as bill collectors, particularly where the impacted residents are elderly, impoverished or both, does nothing to improve public safety and tarnishes the reputations of the small towns involved.  

Under a 2012 Valley municipal ordinance, nonpayment of garbage fees is a misdemeanor punishable by fine. Appleseed reviewed 26 arrests of Valley residents charged with failing to pay solid waste fees, 11 of which took place this year. Of 26 cases reviewed, 11 people had been arrested more than once over unpaid trash bills. 

Among those who were arrested on trash warrants by Valley police was 77-year-old Dee Kent, who was pulled over and arrested in November of 2021 while on her way to an appointment with her oncologist, CBS 42 first reported. 

Kent, now 79, told the news station she’d received no warning from the city prior to her arrest for failure to pay $141 in trash bills. She described her arrest to Appleseed by phone Thursday as “embarrassing.” 

“It was rough going to jail. Especially when everyone knows you. When you’ve grown up here,” Kent said. 

Nortasha Jackson, 49, was arrested Nov. 26 at her Valley home for $88 in unpaid trash bills, court records show. Her charge is listed as “Failure to Pay Solid Waste Fees” in those records. 

Jackson said she was arrested by two officers, one white and one Black, and described the younger Black officer as “gung ho.” 

“I came here to do my job. You’re going to be arrested,” the younger officer told her, Jackson said. 

Once at the Valley Police Department, she was given 20 minutes to arrange her bail or else be taken to the county jail. Panicked, Jackson said she got help from her adult son who was able to transfer a payment to help secure the bond before she was to be moved.

Jackson’s three children are grown and all have moved on. She receives partial disability benefits and works full time as a cashier, but her health problems prevented her from working during the months of October and November, Jackson said, meaning she had to stretch what little income she had even further. 

“It’s really hard,” she said. “My health is more important.” 

How a law becomes an arrest

With a few exceptions, participation in Valley’s garbage service program is mandatory. Residents are required to pay $18.10 per month for the service, or $15.60 if they are 65 or older and apply for an exemption. People who rely exclusively on Social Security benefits for income can also apply for full exemption.

Penalties for nonpayment include late fees, suspension of services, and civil actions. And pursuant to an ordinance adopted in 2012, people who violate any element of the city’s solid waste code “shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction, shall be fined not less than $50.00 nor more than $200.00.” The ordinance spells out that those fines can be compounded, with each day of noncompliance constituting a separate offense.

Valley has clarified that Menefield was arrested for failure to appear, not strictly for failure to pay her trash bill. But in Valley – along with at least 47 other Alabama cities – failure to pay trash bills alone is technically enough to trigger criminal charges. 

How does enforcement transpire? Every town operates differently, but to get a sense of how cities go about enforcing criminal codes where the offense in question is not something that would result in a call to 911 or a police stop, Alabama Appleseed spoke with two former city clerks who worked for small rural towns in Alabama.

The former clerks, who between them have decades of experience in municipal governance, explained that it is common for cities to contract with outside companies to collect their trash, as Valley does with a company called Amwaste. The cities pay the bill for that service, and city councils have discretion to pass those costs on to residents by passing a local ordinance. Fees collected pursuant to such ordinances have to be used for trash-related purposes and cannot be disbursed to the general fund. 

Generally, the clerks said, cities have an entity – a water or utilities board in some, a solid waste department in others – that oversees garbage collection services and collects fees from residents. In order to keep track of payments, that entity maintains a list of delinquencies, which in a city with an ordinance permitting criminal consequences it could turn over to a magistrate on a periodic basis. Based on that list, the magistrate would issue warrants which police would be tasked with executing. 

“I imagine they don’t even think about it, it’s just automatic. I think it probably stems from a policy set by the council or a directive from the mayor, but the magistrate is just doing what they do,” said Herman Lehman, former city clerk and treasurer for the city of Montevallo who now works as a consultant.

Lehman said that every single step of that process involves discretion. Like Valley, Montevallo contracts with an outside company to collect trash. The city pays the bill each month and collects fees from residents, who are required to participate in the service but can obtain exemptions if they can show they are unable to pay. As in Valley, Montevallo city code makes nonpayment of trash fees a misdemeanor. 

Lehman said he is unaware of the city ever having enforced that provision of its code. Instead, when Montevallo found a resident was struggling to pay, it sought to connect them with assistance through local churches, community-based organizations, or a Shelby County fund that is available to people with certain types of financial difficulties. Montevallo also made sure that eligible individuals knew they could apply for exemptions from the mandatory fee. When people habitually failed to pay or act on their bills, Montevallo used civil and administrative measures to sanction them and attempt to recover the money. 

“The idea that police were there to protect and serve, we sort of felt that serve was the operative word,” Lehman said of Montevallo’s reluctance to deploy police as debt collectors. “It just doesn’t make sense when you’re living in a community, particularly in a small community, to always play the bad guy, particularly in a situation where people may need help.”

Alabama law does not require custodial arrests for all misdemeanor charges. Among myriad unserved warrants for a wide variety of offenses dating back to 2003, Appleseed identified 22 for unpaid trash bills throughout Chambers County, along with one unserved warrant for the offense of “pants below waist.”

It is possible that the city of Valley issues summons initially, telling people who are delinquent on trash fees to come to court on a particular day for a hearing before a judge. What seems to have happened with Menefield is that she missed her initial court date. Typically, failure to appear at a court date prompts the issue of a second warrant, this time for failure to appear. That is the type of warrant that led to  Menefield’s November arrest.

But even failure to appear warrants are subject to discretion, retired Birmingham Police Captain Jerry Wiley explained to Alabama Appleseed. Wiley said that police in Alabama are required to take people into custody for certain misdemeanor charges such as driving under the influence. But alternatives to arrest, including warnings and admonitions to resolve the problem that prompted the warrant, are available for many misdemeanors. In a small town like Valley, Wiley said, expectations about how police should proceed in cases like Menefield’s are set by the police chief, who answers to the mayor and/or city council. Though individual officers legally have the discretion not to arrest for certain offenses, Wiley said that in a small town, they would have little authority to defy such policies without risking their jobs. 

But using police to punish nonpayment comes with a price for public safety. Research shows that when residents perceive police as debt collectors with badges, violent crimes are solved at a lower rate. 

“If the only thing you’re interacting with your police department is for is arbitrary arrests and silly things like that, it becomes an adversarial relationship,” Wiley said. “If the police are out doing this, they’re not fighting the crime they should be fighting.”

The Costs of Debt

 Making failure to pay trash fees a criminal offense doesn’t only make police officers debt collectors. It also results in many of those residents owing much more than their original fees.

Court records show that the average cost of unpaid garbage fees in those cases was $138.79. But as the cases progressed through the court, the average cost of all fees and additional court costs levied ballooned to an average of $402. 

The racial breakdown of the arrests mirrored Valley’s racial demographics fairly closely: 42 percent of the people arrested in the 26 cases reviewed by Appleseed were Black, and the town’s population is about 38 percent Black. 

These arrests could be stopped in a number of ways, but doing so would require action from Valley Mayor Leonard Riley and the seven-member Valley City Council, which could vote to change the language in the ordinance that makes nonpayment a misdemeanor. City officials could also simply stop the process that leads to the referral of those who are behind on payments for prosecution, and instead handle those debts as civil matters. 

Several attempts to reach Valley city officials and its police chief this week were unsuccessful. The only public statement from city officials was from Valley Police Chief Mike Reynolds, who in a press release stated that while officers can use discretion in certain matters “the enforcement of an arrest warrant issued by the court and signed by a magistrate, is not one of them.” 

“City of Valley Code Enforcement Officers issued Menefield a citation in August of 2022 for non-payment for trash services for the months of June, July, and August,” the statement reads. “Prior to issuing the citation, Code Enforcement tried to call Menefield several times and attempted to contact her in person at her residence. When contact could not be made, a door hanger was left at her residence. The hanger contained information on the reason for the visit and a name and contact phone number for her to call. The citation advised Menefield that she was to appear in court on September 7, 2022, in reference to this case. A warrant for Failure to Pay-Trash was issued when she did not appear in court.”

Jackson, the Valley woman arrested at home on Nov. 26, said the city needs to change how it handles unpaid garbage debt. She said that using police officers to collect such small amounts is “really stupid” and is not the sort of work taxpayers want from police departments. 

“It needs to be done better. It stigmatizes people,” she said.

Alabama Appleseed’s priorities for the 2022 legislative session are narrowly focused on sensible reforms and investments. Our priorities reinforce what so many Alabamians are beginning to understand: as a state, we pour too much money into prisons and punishment and fail to invest in policies and services that will make us all safer and more prosperous.

This session, help us pass the following three priorities: 

End drivers license suspensions for low-wealth Alabamians

Right now, nearly 170,000 Alabamians have their driver’s licenses suspended because they failed to pay traffic tickets or failed to appear in court. That’s 170,000 people who can’t easily hold down jobs, take care of themselves or their families, or otherwise go about their lives – not because they’re dangerous drivers, but because they owe the state money. At the same time, Alabama is facing a staggering labor shortage, with more than two jobs for every jobseeker. Something’s got to change.

This session, Appleseed will support bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road) and Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham) that would sever the connection between unpaid traffic debt and driver’s license suspensions while ensuring accountability for individuals who receive traffic tickets and maintaining protections against dangerous drivers. Specifically, the legislation will end suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets and failure to appear at compliance hearings about payment plans, while also making plain that drivers who simply ignore tickets can have their licenses suspended and leaving in place the points system that governs suspensions for habitually reckless drivers.

Reform is urgently needed. Businesses are suffering for lack of workers, and Alabamians who lost their licenses due to debt are making desperate choices in the meantime. Our 2018 survey of Alabama drivers whose licenses were suspended due to unpaid traffic debt found that 89% had to choose between basic needs like food, utilities, or medicine and paying what they owed; 73% had to request charitable assistance they would not have otherwise needed; 48% took out high-interest payday loans; and 30% admitted to committing crimes like selling drugs or stealing to pay off their tickets.

Alabama drivers need licenses so they can get decent jobs and do what they need to do to care for themselves and their families. This bill aims to help them get back on the road.

Invest federal COVID-relief funds into prison re-entry and diversion programs

In Alabama, individuals transitioning back into society after serving time for a criminal offense face a blockade and there is virtually no reasonable pathway for re-entry without family support. Individuals who have served their time and are trying to make a life change, but have no financial resources, need basic necessities to have any chance for safety and stability.

The State of Alabama currently provides no re-entry housing support for the vast majority of people exiting from the Alabama Department of Corrections’ custody. In fiscal 2021, that number was 4,122.  Appleseed’s proposal seeks to provide bare minimum support to this population in order to provide stability during their first months outside of prison and increase public safety. 

The Legislature should approve $10 million in American Rescue Act (ARPA) funding for licensed, private, nonprofit providers of housing and re-entry services throughout the State. Housing could be provided using two models: the group home/halfway house setting and the community-based transitional home model.  For $10 million annually, approximately 2,000 returning individuals could be safety housed as they get back on their feet. Models in Georgia, Texas, and Michigan have been enormously successful.

Already lawmakers have devoted $400 million in ARPA funds to help build two, new mega prisons, a controversial decision that has been widely criticized. Lawmakers must decide this session how to spend another $580 million. A small fraction for re-entry housing would help address the desperation and homelessness that thousands of people who leave prison every year face.

On the front end, lawmakers should use this rare federal funding opportunity to improve and support programs such as drug courts and diversion that treat people arrested for minor, nonviolent drug crimes in communities rather than sending them to Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons.

As Appleseed found in our 2020 report, In Trouble, these programs can cost thousands of dollars, which makes them inaccessible for low-income people.  More than eight in 10 participants we surveyed gave up a necessity like food, rent, or medicine to pay for a diversion program. One in five had been turned down for a diversion program because they could not afford it. 

Provide a grace period for individuals returning from prison to pay fines and fees

Finally, Appleseed is working to provide greater opportunities for success to formerly incarcerated people through legislation that would grant people a six month “grace period” following release before they must begin paying back court fines and fees. 

People often leave prison with little more than a few dollars and a change of clothes. They have no identification, they have a felony conviction, plus housing challenges. It is hardly a formula for success. On top of these challenges, most justice-involved people have accumulated thousands of dollars in court fines and fees – sometimes for decades-old traffic tickets. They must begin paying immediately or face re-arrest. It’s an endless cycle that costs all Alabamians and makes no one safer. 

Representative Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika) will sponsor legislation that will grant justice-involved people a six-month “grace period” before they have to begin paying back fines and fees after being released from prison. It just makes sense.

Join Appleseed’s Action Network to keep updated on our priority issues and more this session. Thank you for standing with us to build a better Alabama! 

A judge with a troubling history is again taking extreme measure to hold people accountable for decades-old government debt

By Leah Nelson
Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

An Alabama judge with a history of using drastic measures to prompt debtors to pay outstanding fines and fees appears to be at it again. According to the Bibb County Circuit Clerk’s office, Hon. Marvin Wiggins has directed the clerk to mail notices to all individuals who owe fines, fees, court costs, or restitution directing them to pay, come to court, or potentially face a warrant for their arrest.

Bibb County Circuit Court Judge Marvin Wiggins has been repeatedly censured, including for ordering debtors to pay fines or give blood, instead.

Wiggins, the presiding judge of Alabama’s 4th Judicial Circuit (covering Bibb, Hale, Perry, Dallas, and Wilcox Counties), made national news in 2015 when he was censured by the Court of the Judiciary of Alabama for telling individuals in his Perry County courtroom that they could either pay, donate blood in a blood drive being held in the courthouse parking lot, or go to jail. 

“[I]f you do not have any money, and you don’t want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money,” Wiggins told defendants in 2015. 

Dozens of people, unable to pay and fearful of going to jail, obliged. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary later found him in violation of multiple Canons of Judicial Ethics, and Wiggins acknowledged wrongdoing. And the organization that ran the blood drive discarded 41 units of blood because it was unable to verify that donors gave them voluntarily.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted financially insecure Alabamians, the judge is again pressuring debtors to pay what they owe or face jail time. According to the clerk’s office, the court sent notices to people whose debt stems from cases as distant as 1992.

Who keeps records on a 20-year-old traffic ticket?

One such notice was mailed to the last known address of Quanetta McNeal, who was told she owes more than $400 for a traffic ticket she received in 2000 in Brent, Ala. 

U.S. Air Force Veteran Quanetta McNeal received a notice about a 20-year-old traffic case. She believed she had completed all requirements and paid her debt, but has no records to prove it.

“[S]hould the defendant fail to appear or make an arrangement with the circuit clerk to pay the balance, a warrant maybe [sic] issued for the defendant’s arrest,” the notice reads.

McNeal, an Air Force veteran, former teacher, and business owner, called the clerk as soon as her mother, who received the first notice in June, told her she was expected in court. For McNeal, the conversation dredged up memories of her 2000 encounter with a police officer in Brent, Ala. who pulled her over at a stop sign and claimed she had been speeding. McNeal, who lived in Birmingham at the time, contested the ticket. She recalls making the two-hour round-trip drive from Birmingham to Brent three times before the officer finally showed up in court, where it was her word against his. 

As she remembers it, the judge (who was not Judge Wiggins) agreed to dismiss the charges as long as McNeal attended a four-hour driving school in Hoover and paid court costs. “I attended that class, paid the necessary fees to the court in Brent, and I was under the impression that that matter was closed,” she said. As a veteran, McNeal took her responsibilities seriously and prided herself in keeping her affairs in order.

Under Pressure: Alabama’s unhealthy reliance on fines and fees 

Though Judge Wiggins’ debt-collection methods are extreme, what is happening in Bibb County is just a symptom of a much larger problem. Alabama’s unhealthy dependance on legal financial obligations including fines, fees, and court costs, to fund basic state services has driven the price of even minor traffic infractions sky-high and put pressure on courts to collect money from debtors at any cost. 

Asked if they see a lot of people actually coming in to take care of those old court debts, the clerk in Bibb County paused and said, “Not really.” The judge directed her to send the notices anyway, she said. 

“If you owe money,” the clerk said, “it doesn’t go away.”

Judge Wiggins did not respond to a request for comment.

Records show that McNeal’s bill for her 2000 ticket totals $423.80: a $138.00 for a municipal traffic offense fee; a $158.00 traffic infraction docketing fee, a $30.00 “criminal history fee”; and an additional $97.80 fee tacked by the district attorney’s office. This last fee, which accrues against any debtor who is in arrears more than 90 days, is set aside to pay the district attorney’s “Restitution Recovery Unit,” which is tasked with getting money from debtors who fall behind on legal financial obligations and permitted to tack an additional 30 percent on to the total owed for its trouble. 

Despite this fee, it is unclear whether district attorney’s restitution recovery unit played any role in seeking to collect payments from McNeal during the 21 years during which the court claims she was in arrears.

The restitution recovery fee, if collected, is customarily split between the clerk’s office and the district attorney. The rest of the money is remitted to the Administrative Office of Courts, which duly disburses it to a wide range of non-court related entities including the State General Fund, the Police Officer’s Annuity Fund, and the American Village at Montevallo, an educational facility and event venue which receives a $1.00 cut from a wide range of court fees.

A job awaits, but so does an arrest warrant

McNeal, who maintains that she completed driving school and settled her debt to the state back in 2001, has long since moved on with her life. For a while, she taught school in Hoover and Homewood. She completed her service with the U.S. Air Force in 2005, and in 2011, she moved to Jamaica, where she opened a restaurant. She visited Alabama often and maintained her driver’s license and a mailing address at her mother’s house.

Recently, McNeal made the difficult decision to close her restaurant in Jamaica and move back to Alabama. The pandemic has hit the island nation hard, and between lockdowns and lost income, the restaurant doesn’t get the traffic necessary to keep its doors open. 

Quanetta McNeal, recently, in her restaurant in Jamaica. Covid has heavily impacted the island nation’s economy and she wants to return to the U.S. for work, but fears arrest over decades-old court debt.

McNeal has a phone job interview with an employer who is based in the United States in early September, but she is now afraid she will not be able to come home because of the arrest warrant Wiggins threatened.

She is absolutely certain she settled her debt long ago, but she does not have records two decades old. And now, because of the judge’s sudden decision to hold her accountable for decades-old debt she cannot prove she paid off, she feels she must choose between staying in Jamaica and coming home and facing possible arrest. 

On Tuesday, McNeal emailed a motion to the court describing her situation and asking the judge to dismiss the case against her. “Over twenty (20) years have passed since the defendant last appeared before the court and acted timely and in good faith to honor obligations to the court as agreed 20 years ago,” she wrote.

She will face a cruel set of choices if Wiggins denies her motion. Like millions of small business owners whose lives were turned upside down by the pandemic, she could not come up with money to pay even if she were ordered her to. She has $571.12 in her checking account and $11.04 in her savings account. 

“The court,” she wrote in a text to Appleseed, “cannot wipe out what I have left.”

The former high school football star used marijuana to manage pain from a catastrophic accident. Did Alabama law enforcement charge him as a drug kingpin so the state could keep his car, cash, and other valuables?

By Leah Nelson

Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

PHENIX CITY, ALA. – Quandarius Holt must have thought that the worst things that could happen as a result of being struck by an 18-wheeler in 2018 were already behind him. The 23-year-old former high school football star had already lost his left leg above the knee and endured multiple surgeries, resulting from a tractor trailer crashing into him as he helped a motorist move her disabled car off the road.

Quan Holt picked up wheelchair basketball after losing his left leg.

 

Remarkably, after less than a year, Holt was moving forward. With money from the significant settlement he received as a result of the accident, he and his wife purchased a house in a nice neighborhood and a new car. He joined a wheelchair basketball league and was being recruited for several college teams. After discovering the opioids and other medications he was sent home from the hospital with did little to lessen the excruciating pain from his injuries, he turned instead to the aid of marijuana.

 

That was a mistake. In Alabama, it is illegal to possess any amount of marijuana for any reason. But Holt, desperate for relief, didn’t ask the right questions or think through the potential risks when he obtained medical marijuana cards from Georgia and California. He learned the hard way when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) arrested him at his Phenix City, Ala. house on July 16, 2020. By the time he got out of jail, ALEA had taken his car, his cash, his cell phone, and other belongings, using a process known as civil asset forfeiture which allows law enforcement to seize and even keep property they believe is connected to criminal activity. Despite Holt’s own admission that he used marijuana to manage pain, law enforcement charged him like a drug kingpin – a decision his attorney believes was made to strengthen the state’s case for keeping his property, not because of any evidence that Holt is a drug dealer.

In the space of two years, Holt lost his leg, his mobility, and his ability to support his family. Confused by ill-considered guidance from doctors who suggested he try marijuana and so desperate to manage his pain he failed to seriously consider the consequences, he also lost $60,000 worth of property he’d purchased with proceeds from the civil settlement from his catastrophic accident.

Now awaiting trial in the case that could result in a prison sentence, Holt is broke, depressed, frightened, and in pain.

The Cannabis Conundrum

This was not the life Holt envisioned. In high school, he was a nationally ranked football player who left parties if there was any substance abuse, even drinking. “I grew up in the ghetto, in the projects. I knew football was my ticket out,” he told Alabama Appleseed.

He earned a scholarship and played at a private high school in Phenix City, then went to Lindenwood University in Illinois. He took a break after his freshman year and considered joining the Marines. It was during this break, the fall of what would have been his sophomore year in college, that the accident happened.

Quan’s football talents earned him a scholarship to a private high school and to college. Here, he is Number 29.

Just before dawn on Nov. 19, 2018, Holt and his girlfriend happened upon a 61-year-old woman who had gotten a flat tire on a busy road in Columbus, Georgia. He was helping her move the vehicle to safety when he was struck by an 18-wheeler. Army medics who happened upon the scene on their way to Fort Benning saved his life – but they could not save his left leg, which was amputated above the knee. His right femur was broken, his pelvis fractured, his bladder ruptured, his liver lacerated, and his spine injured.

Holt told Appleseed he was placed in a medically induced coma for about a month and prescribed morphine to manage the pain. By the time he went home, his 5’11” frame had plummeted from 225 to 125 pounds.

Records show the hospital sent him home with 11 medications, including Fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid that the CDC cites as a major driver of overdose deaths. Holt says none of them controlled his pain. Neither did multiple follow-up surgeries. His worst pains were so-called “phantom pains,” his brain confused by signals from the nerves that were damaged when surgeons amputated his leg. He told Appleseed that one of his doctors recommended medical cannabis and referred him to the Georgia Department of Public Health and BePainFreeGlobal, a marijuana retailer based in California.

These were dangerous, ill-informed recommendations. Under Georgia law, a physician may recommend their patient be permitted to register for a Low THC Card. If the recommendation is approved – and it appears Holt’s was – the Georgia Department of Public Health provides a registry card allowing the patient to legally possess up to 20 fluid ounces of “low THC oil.”

Georgia’s law does not allow people to purchase most marijuana products. More importantly for Holt, Georgia’s law only applies in Georgia. A Georgia Low THC Card is meaningless in Alabama, where he lives. Phenix City, Ala., where Holt lives, is tied so closely to the larger Columbus, Ga. just across the state line that it is Alabama’s only municipality to operate in the Eastern Time Zone. Residents move constantly across state lines for work and commerce. Holt’s doctors were in Georgia and covered by Georgia law – but he was not.

The medical marijuana card issued by California physicians via BePainFreeGlobal’s affiliated network is even more troubling. On Oct. 19, 2020, Alabama Appleseed called BePainFreeGlobal and asked about having marijuana shipped to Alabama. The customer service representative confirmed they ship to all 50 states as long as the customer has a California doctor’s recommendation. He referred Appleseed to several California-based telehealth providers, noting that one in particular was cheap, quick, and “they approve everyone.”

Appleseed told him that marijuana, medical or otherwise, is not legal in Alabama. “I definitely understand what you’re saying,” the customer service representative said. But his employers, he said, “feel that they’re under some kind of legal umbrella due to like constitutional law and the Bill of Rights.” The representative then transferred Appleseed to “somebody more on the up end” of the management chain. A voicemail and attempts to follow up via email received no response.

BePainFreeGlobal may or may not be protected by “some kind of legal umbrella” – it seems doubtful – but Holt is out in the storm. Until and unless marijuana laws are made more uniform nationwide, there will always be people ensnared by the jurisdictional traps that mean what is perfectly legal in one state is a felony in another.

After losing his leg, Quan remained committed to supporting his children.

Helping his toddler walk, while learning to walk all over again himself.

Holt does seem to have been a heavy user. He was arrested with about three ounces of marijuana and various products. But there is no evidence that he sold marijuana or intended to; no evidence that he used his vehicle to distribute marijuana; and significant reason to believe that he, like his wife, possessed it solely for personal use. There is no weight threshold distinguishing marijuana possession “for personal use” from “for other than personal use” in Alabama law; that determination is made solely by charging authorities. Yet the difference in terms of outcome is enormous. Possession for personal use is a misdemeanor on the first arrest and a Class D felony all subsequence arrests. Possession for other than personal use is a Class C felony, carrying serious consequences. This was Holt’s first arrest for possession.

 

Out in the storm

The complaint filed in the civil asset forfeiture case says that a neighbor who was in law enforcement alerted ALEA of marijuana in Holt’s house, going so far as to trespass on Holt’s property to photograph his two marijuana plants. Holt was not living there at the time because he and his wife had separated. She remained in the house with their son, while Holt moved to a nearby apartment. Their relationship was strained, and at one point he insisted she move out of the house.

Based on the neighbor’s report, an ALEA agent came to the house, where Holt’s wife was packing up her clothes. Holt’s wife told him that the marijuana plants did not belong to her and that she knew they were illegal. According to the complaint, she asked if she could call and ask Holt to come over. Law enforcement vacated the driveway and concealed themselves, waiting for Holt to arrive.

Holt told Appleseed he came quickly, thinking he and his wife would be continuing their ongoing conversation about custody arrangements for their one-year-old son. Instead, he was greeted by weapons and handcuffs. “My car isn’t completely in my driveway [when] three undercover agents come out of my house with their guns drawn at me, and a state trooper pulled in behind me to block me from leaving,” he said.

The two marijuana plants and paraphernalia were already wrapped and bagged as evidence when he got inside. According to the complaint, police also found 90 grams of marijuana in his car, along with THC gummies, five packs of THC vape cartridges, and a bottle of THC oil in his car. They found four grams of marijuana and a THC vape in his wife’s car.

The Lee County District Attorney Pro Tem told Appleseed that at this stage, charging decisions are based on recommendations from law enforcement. She said she is unable to comment on the case beyond what is in the record, and suggested we call ALEA. ALEA did not respond to Appleseed’s request for its valuation of the marijuana, and said pending litigation meant it could not comment on our request for assistance in understanding the assertion by the law enforcement agency that the marijuana was for other than personal use. Holt’s lawyer says there are documents showing Holt paid less than $400 for the THC products from BePainFreeGlobal, and that the two plants were too immature to have produced any cannabis that could be used or sold, and therefore essentially valueless at the time of his arrest.

Police arrested both Holt and his wife and booked them into jail. Holt was charged with First Degree Possession of Marijuana for Other than Personal Use, a Class C felony; Unlawful Manufacture of a Controlled Substance, which can be a Class A or B felony, and Possession/Receipt of a Controlled Substance, a Class D felony. Bond for the three cases came to $54,500.

Holt’s wife was charged with Second Degree Possession of Marijuana, a misdemeanor, and Possession/Receipt of a Controlled Substance, a Class D felony. Her bond totaled $2,500.

Holt and his wife both bonded out within a few hours. By then, police had taken more than $9,000 in cash that he and his wife had withdrawn from their shared account during an acrimonious low point in their dispute, as well as the 2019 Dodge Charger and everything inside of it – including his iPhone, clothes he had recently purchased for his baby boy (who has since outgrown them), a new lawnmower battery he needed to replace one that had died, and the licensed firearms he kept to protect himself after his injury limited his mobility.

He has not seen any of it since.

Policing for Profit

Holt purchased his car and other items seized not from drug activity, but from proceeds from the settlement he received after being crushed by an 18-wheeler. While he acknowledges being a heavy marijuana user to manage his pain, no one gets rich from buying drugs.

Holt retained a lawyer to challenge the state’s seizure of his belongings. The state argues in its complaint that the car, cash, and firearms were “used, or intended for use,” in unlawful activity. But the ostensible purpose of civil asset forfeiture laws is to separate individuals who might be beyond the reach of the law (for instance, drug kingpins residing outside the U.S.) from their ill-gotten riches.

Quan Holt cares for his young children, despite having his car, cash, and other valuables seized by law enforcement.

And that is where Holt’s case becomes both interesting and terribly dismaying. Holt is decidedly not a drug kingpin. In an interview with Alabama Appleseed, the former high school football star admitted to spending tens of thousands of dollars on the products he needed to manage his pain from the 2018 accident. Much of that money went to BePainFreeGlobal.com, the California-based outfit that ships nationwide, seemingly with impunity, despite state and federal laws explicitly barring it from doing so. In fact, Holt’s attorney, Mike Segrest, told Appleseed he offered to share with ALEA receipts and other evidence of BePainFreeGlobal’s activity, which could potentially help law enforcement investigate the business. Segrest said ALEA responded to his offer by threatening to file federal charges against Holt for using the U.S. Postal Service to receive contraband.

The steep charges against Holt gave Alabama authorities leverage over more than his liberty. They also enabled law enforcement to seize his property under Alabama’s expansive civil asset forfeiture law, which allows the state to take and keep currency, vehicles, houses, land, weapons, and virtually any other item that is they believe is the proceeds of, or was used to facilitate, criminal activity.

Holt has not yet been indicted, so the outcome of the criminal charges against him is still unknown. Regardless, he is already suffering the consequences: he’s broke, he lost his car, and his untreated pain makes every moment agony.

He earns a little money from his job at the front desk of a doctor’s office, but between child support for his two children (a daughter from a prior relationship and a young son from the marriage that just ended), payments to his bail bondsman, and other expenses, it’s not enough. His doctor prescribed pain medication and a muscle relaxant, Holt said. But “my prescription has been sitting at the pharmacy for about a week because I do not have the funds to go and get it.”

But what of the other consequences? Should Holt lose his valuables because he was treating his pain with a type of medication that is legal in states where the overwhelming majority of Americans live?

Alabama says yes. In its complaint, the state says the items it seized: $9,306, the Dodge Challenger, and the firearms, were “used, or intended for use, in a transaction which would be in violation of the Alabama Controlled Substances Act or other laws of the State of Alabama concerning controlled substances and/or that said vehicle and weapon were used, or intended for use, to transport, or in any manner facilitate the transportation, manufacture, sale, receipt, possession, or concealment of a controlled substance or precursor to manufacture in violation of the Alabama Controlled Substances Act amended and/or is a traceable drug asset.”

Boiled down, that avalanche of law enforcement argot means the state is pretty sure all that stuff is somehow linked to a crime. According to Segrest, ALEA asserts that the mere fact that the Challenger had marijuana in it means the state is entitled to keep it.

Pursuant to that assertion, in its complaint, the state “respectfully request[s]” that, if the money is “condemned,” (that is, if a judge decides Holt should never get it back), 70 percent ($6,514.20) be given to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, 20 percent ($1,861.20) to the Lee County District Attorney’s Fund, and 10 percent ($930.60) to the Alabama Department of Forensic Science’s Auburn Lab.

It asks that the “monetary proceeds” of the Dodge Challenger – a sports car that cost Holt more than $40,000 off the lot – be divided the same way, and suggests the firearms be given to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency for “general law enforcement purposes or destruction.”

Questionable Constitutionality

Quan Holt’s situation – police seizing property he acquired as a result of his kindness to a stranger nearly costing him his life – seems uniquely unjust.  But it is just the latest in a long line of examples of law enforcement profiting wildly from civil asset forfeiture where the public safety benefits are tenuous at best.

In 2017, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center undertook an extensive review of Alabama civil forfeiture cases. We examined 1,110 cases in 14 counties, representing 1,591 civil asset forfeiture cases filed in Alabama in 2015.

In 55 percent of cases we examined where criminal charges were filed, the charges were related to marijuana. In 18 percent of cases where criminal charges were filed, the charge was simple possession of marijuana and/or paraphernalia – crimes that require the person to part with money or valuables in order to commit them.

Segrest, the lawyer who represents Holt in both the criminal and civil proceedings, is mounting a vigorous challenge to both. Among other things, he observes that Holt was not living at the residence when police served his wife with the search warrant – that in fact, he only came there because his wife messaged him and asked him to come and talk after law enforcement had already threatened her with arrest. The search and seizure of the car and its contents, he argues, was illegal.

Segrest makes another argument about the seizure’s constitutionality, one that goes to the heart of an evolving argument about limits of civil asset forfeiture and the use of financial penalties more broadly. Even if the search was legal, he says, the property seized cannot be forfeited because it is disproportionate to the crime committed.

Segrest’s argument is based on new constitutional law stemming from the 2013 case of Tyson Timbs, an Indiana resident who used life insurance money he received after his father died to buy a $42,000 Land Rover. Timbs, who was addicted to and occasionally sold opioids, also once used the Land Rover to travel to a location where he sold heroin to undercover officers. He was arrested on his way to another sale, and law enforcement seized the vehicle.

Timbs eventually pleaded guilty to one count of dealing a controlled substance and one count of conspiracy to commit theft. He fought the seizure of his vehicle, arguing that its value was more than four times the $10,000 maximum criminal fine available. The state of Indiana countered that the excessive fines clause of the U.S. Constitution does not apply to the states and also that civil asset forfeitures are not punitive, and that it was therefore entitled to keep the Land Rover.

Timbs v. Indiana made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a unanimous ruling, the justices ordered Indiana to reconsider the case. Timbs eventually got his Land Rover back.

Segrest argues persuasively that Holt’s case is similar to Timbs. The financial penalties associated with the crimes Holt is accused of are steep: The manufacturing charge alone could carry a fine of up to $60,000. Segrest argues that “[t]he arresting officers inflated the charges against Mr. Holt to felonies … in order to justify the unlawful taking of property with a value of approximately $60,000.”

In other words, his hunch is that law enforcement deliberately over-charged Holt to build a case for the eventual forfeiture of his valuables. If true, that would mean they decided it was worth exposing a medically compromised father of two to a lengthy prison term because they wanted to keep his flashy car and his cash.

Given Alabama law enforcement’s track record of using civil asset forfeiture laws to seize things like acres of peach-growing land a Chilton County sheriff hoped to repurpose as a shooting range, it is not a stretch of the imagination to be skeptical of state state’s motives. Certainly, the Lee County District Attorney’s office that is pursuing the forfeiture deserves extra scrutiny: In Nov. 2020, a special grand jury indicted District Attorney Brandon Hughes for eight felonies, including violating the state ethics act, conspiring to commit first-degree theft, and first-degree perjury. The indictment alleges a myriad of ways Hughes used his office for personal gain. Among other things, he is alleged to have conspired to steal a pickup truck from a Chambers County business and to have added three of his children to the office payroll. Hughes was District Attorney at the time Holt was charged.

“The cycle continues every day” – For Holt, and for law enforcement agencies who profit from unproven crimes

Litigation is not the only way to protect Holt and other Alabamians, including the many individuals whose seized property is less than the cost of the lawyer they would need to get it back. In 2021, a bipartisan group of Alabama lawmakers introduced a bill that would end civil asset forfeiture in case like Holt’s.

SB 210 would end civil asset forfeiture in criminal drug offenses and replace it with a unified criminal process. It would also require most criminal forfeitures happen after proof of conviction, making it much harder to law enforcement to keep otherwise lawful property that wasn’t clearly shown to be the fruits or instrumentality of criminal activity.

The state could still take and keep contraband such as controlled substances or gambling machines, but it would have to prove to a judge’s satisfaction that any otherwise lawful property like vehicles, cash, or other valuables seized had something to do with criminal activity before it could keep them.

If passed, SB 210 would also extend access to counsel in criminal cases to any related forfeiture proceedings, meaning that people would no longer have to pay for a lawyer to recover their own property even if they were found not guilty or never even charged with a crime. It would expand opportunities for people like Holt to get their valuables back prior to their criminal conviction, including if the valuables are “not reasonably required to be held for evidentiary reasons.” And it would create a proportionality hearing enabling people like Holt to argue that even if their property were incidentally used in the commission of a crime, the harm caused by its forfeiture would be excessive.

Quan Holt is facing a possible prison sentence for possession of marijuana, a substance legal in states where more than half of Americans live.

Nor is forfeiture reform the only law that, if passed, could protect people like Holt. This session, the Alabama legislature will consider two bills with the potential to put Alabama’s marijuana policy more in line with the rest of America’s. The first, filed by Sen. Tim Melson (R-Florence), would legalize medical marijuana for treatment of about 20 conditions, including intractable pain. The second, filed by Sen. Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) would reclassify possession of small amounts of marijuana as a fine-only offense. In a state where Black people like Mr. Holt are four times as likely as their white peers to be arrested for possession of marijuana despite robust, longstanding evidence that the two groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate, marijuana policy reform of both types is a critical and long-overdue step.

For Holt – broke, depressed, in pain, still responsible for supporting himself and two children, and no longer in possession the vehicle he needs to get to and from work – all of these laws would have made a world of difference had they been passed prior to his neighbor’s decision to turn him in.

“It does feel like it’s overwhelming at times,” he said. “My mom comes and picks me up every morning to take me to work and she picks me up when I get off to bring me back to the house. And the cycle continues every day.”

 

By Leah Nelson

Leah.Nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

ELMORE, ALA. (Nov. 9, 2020) – Sean Worsley finally walked through the gates of Staton Correctional Facility this morning and into the arms of his wife Eboni. It was a moment nearly 11 months in the making.

Sean Worsley reunites with his wife Eboni Worsley after being released from Draper prison. Photo by Jill Friedman

Worsley is a disabled Black veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart in connection with his service disabling roadside bombs in Iraq. He was arrested in 2016 in Gordo, Ala., for the mistake of bringing his legally prescribed medical marijuana from his home state of Arizona into Alabama, where possession of any amount of marijuana for any reason can be a felony. He pleaded guilty in 2017 and was sentenced to probation, and allowed to serve that sentence in Arizona.

Homelessness, financial instability, and the differences between Arizona and Alabama drug laws thwarted his efforts to comply with the terms of his probation. He was arrested in January; then a Pickens County judge revoked his probation and sentenced him to five years in prison.

His bid for parole was granted last month.

Worsley emerged this morning into a world turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, a dramatic presidential election, and months of civil unrest over police violence against Black Americans.  His journey since his Jan. 11 arrest in Arizona has been an object lesson in how government resources were squandered on over-punishing a Black man. Worsley spent two months in jail in Maricopa County, Ariz. awaiting transport to Alabama. In March, he endured 10 days in a prison transport van that made multiple stops in far-flung locations before depositing him in the Pickens County Jail in Carrollton, Ala. He would stay there all spring and summer because the pandemic slowed inmate transfers from county jails to Department of Corrections prisons.

Sean Worsley, a Purple Heart veteran incarcerated by the State of Alabama for medical marijuana, finally has something to smile about. He is free. Photo by Jill Friedman

 

The jail was vile. According to Worsley, the bathroom was full of mold and the dorm was infested with spiders, cockroaches, and other vermin. Worsley said there was no doctor on staff, and the nurses were reluctant to refer even serious complaints of medical distress to a doctor. Many of the men, including Worsley, suffered from mental health conditions exacerbated by the wretched environment and lack of anything productive to do.

Prisoners without family or friends to help them could not afford to supplement the inadequate prison meals with food from the commissary, so they went hungry. They also lacked regular access to sufficient soap and other personal hygiene items, even as the pandemic made those things more essential than ever. Corrections officers forced one inmate Worsley was jailed with into a shower to retaliate for the inmate’s complaints about bedding that smelled of urine. Sometimes, Worsley’s mail was kept from him without explanation. “I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” he wrote Appleseed in a June letter from jail.  Worsley saw terrified men crying, coughing, and begging for medical attention. To pass the time, he slept as much as he could.

In late September, Worsley was at last transported to Draper Correctional Facility, a previously decommissioned prison that was reopened during the pandemic so newly arriving prisoners could quarantine for 14 days before moving along to their next destination. Though his religious beliefs forbid him to cut his hair, corrections officials shaved his head before admitting him to Draper, likely a violation of his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects prisoners from needless incursions on their right to practice their faiths.

Sean rejoins his wife, Eboni, who has advocated for him through his 11-month incarceration for bringing legally prescribed medical marijuana in Alabama. Behind them is Draper prison, one of Alabama’s notoriously horrific state prison, where this disabled veteran was housed. Photo by Jill Friedman

When Worsley finally completed quarantine, he was assigned to Staton Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Elmore, Ala. Other incarcerated men stole his lock and other essential belongings almost as soon as he arrived.

Worsley witnessed a fight and guards taking a huge knife from another prisoner. Knives were routine and his own life was threatened. He was forced to find a different place to sleep after it emerged that the bunk he had been assigned was directly below an area inmates used to store contraband, including cell phones. Some of his fellow prisoners availed themselves of the illegal contraband drugs that are routinely smuggled into Alabama prisons. Worsley witnessed their violent reactions to K2, a synthetic compound that can cause anxiety, paranoia, aggression, seizures, and death. He saw the horrific consequences when inmates snuck illicit drugs into the tobacco smoked by another prisoner they hated, and watched the victim melt down and bang his head on the floor as he suffered hallucinations. The guards, Worsley said, were aware of most of the illegal, dangerous activity that was going on but were powerless or unwilling to stop it.

None of this is surprising. Alabama’s jails, which are run by its counties, are notoriously disorganized and under-resourced. Corruption is not uncommon. Last year in Pickens County, where Worsley was held from March through September, a former sheriff was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison after he stole $400,000 money from the food allowance intended to feed inmates. To feed the inmates in his care, he defrauded a local food bank and his own church, taking almost half a million pounds of food at extremely low cost to himself.

Alabama’s prisons are even worse. Put simply, they are dangerous, corrupt, violent, and infested with contraband including drugs, weapons, and cell phones. Twice in as many years, the U.S. Department of Justice has deemed Alabama’s men’s prison system in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Sean and Eboni visit with Appleseed’s Leah Nelson, who first shared the story of Sean’s incarceration and continued to advocate for his release until he was freed Nov. 9. Photo by Jill Friedman

 

Veterans comprise nearly 10 percent of Alabama’s state population according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They are well represented in its prisons, yet but for one dorm at Bibb Correctional Facility, there is precious little programming for them despite the relatively high rate of PTSD and other ailments that combat can result in. As for mental health treatment for the prison population overall, a federal judge in 2017 deemed it “horrendously inadequate” and ordered the Department of Corrections to take immediate action to improve conditions. In 2020, that same judge found that DOC had been “unable or unwilling to take necessary steps to monitor its own practices” regarding mental health care.

Sean Worsley served in the U.S. Army, earning a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in Iraq.

Worsley already suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder because of his service in Iraq when he was thrown into Alabama’s war zone of a corrections system. Now that he is out, he will have a great deal of adjusting to do. But a cross-sector of supporters from right here in Alabama, has emerged to help, all of whom recognized the inanity of incarcerating a disabled war hero for medical marijuana. He will soon start job training through the Dannon Project, a re-entry program that serves nonviolent offenders in Jefferson and Shelby Counties, and he has a job offer waiting for him at BLOX, a construction firm in Bessemer. He also has the support of a skilled therapist, a loving wife, and the community that has come together to support him since the story of his incarceration for marijuana possession was first published on June 30.

Even so, this man who sacrificed his youth and health to serve America will need time to heal. As Alabama observes an unusually subdued Veterans Day, let us contemplate the treatment Sean Worsley endured in the name of “law and order.” Let us be inspired by his story as we promise to take the urgent steps to change drug policy and enact long-overdue criminal justice reforms. Let us do things differently in his name.

 

By Leah Nelson

leah.nelson@alabamaappleseed.org

In August 2016, a disabled Black veteran named Sean Worsley brought his legally prescribed medical marijuana with him on a road trip from Arizona to North Carolina. On his way through Alabama, Worsley, who earned a Purple Heart in connection with injuries sustained during his 15 months disabling bombs and retrieving the body parts of dead comrades as a Combat Engineer in Iraq, stopped for gas. He played air guitar and clowned around to entertain his wife while waiting for the tank to fill.

Sean Worsley served in the U.S. Army before becoming disabled with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury in Iraq.

Worsley’s playful behavior and the music the couple was playing caught the attention of a police officer who approached and asked to search the vehicle. The couple agreed, even volunteering that he would find Worsley’s medical marijuana and attempting to show him Worsley’s medical marijuana card.

The officer found roughly a third of an ounce of marijuana and arrested both of them. Convinced that the grinder and digital scale Worsley had with him to measure out his doses was evidence that he was a drug dealer, he charged Worsley with possession “for other than personal use,” a felony in Alabama. Worsley, who due to his combat injuries is considered by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs to be 100 percent disabled and in need of “maximal assistance” with basic day-to-day activities, pleaded guilty a year later. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and permitted to serve that sentence in Arizona, where he had lived at the time of the arrest.

But keeping up with probation requirements isn’t always easy, or even possible. Probation officers require their charges to have a stable address, but Worsley and his wife, Eboni, had become homeless in the turmoil that followed his conviction. Another Catch-22 stemmed from the Alabama court’s requirement that Worsley participate in substance abuse treatment as part of his sentence. Worsley tried to get into such a program, but the Phoenix Department of Veteran’s Affairs turned him away, citing the fact that he does not have a substance abuse issue and was only using marijuana as legally prescribed by a doctor. 

From Alabama’s point of view, Worsley’s inability to comply with the terms of his probation was unacceptable. Worsley had three prior felonies at the time of his 2016 arrest, connected with an incident involving a bad check and some marijuana that occurred a few months after his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army Reserves. Alabama could have used those felonies to imprison him immediately after his guilty plea, but it didn’t. That was as generous as the state was willing to be. He incurred another felony in January 2020: His Arizona medical marijuana card expired and he did not have the $250 to renew it but kept medicating himself anyway. He was charged with felony possession in Arizona when police pulled him over for a routine traffic stop. 

In March 2020, Alabama extradited Worsley from Arizona and sentenced him to five years in prison. 

Since April of 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice has twice determined that conditions in Alabama’s prison system for men are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama’s prisons for men are the most deadly in the nation, suffer from corrupt staffing and management, and are flooded with drugs. In 2017, a federal judge found their mental health services to be “horrendously inadequate” and this week ordered federal monitoring because of the system’s inability to sustain improvements without oversight. 

Knowing this, Worsley’s wife and mother were terrified about what would happen to him behind bars. They marshalled a coalition of the unlikeliest of allies in an effort to get him out: A friend of Worsley’s from kindergarten who grew up to become a Republican operative; an Alabama legislator and his husband who are former U.S. Marines; a formerly incarcerated music producer turned advocate who is friendly with Snoop Dogg and Charles Koch; a retired federal magistrate judge; retired Alabama corrections officials; a battalion of veteran’s rights advocates and cannabis advocates. And human rights advocates, including the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, the Montgomery-based public policy organization where I work as research director. 

Everyone got to work. The veterans organized a rally outside the jail where Worsley was being held, holding signs that read “He’s my brother” and “We leave no one behind.” The advocates and lawyers found a statutory mechanism by which Worsley could be permitted to serve his sentence under supervision in the community rather than behind razor wire. We found him a full-time job and lined up pro bono counseling services with a therapist who specializes in treating traumatized veterans. 

More than 2,000 people donated a total of nearly $100,000 dollars online. Some of that helped Eboni Worsley move to Alabama and rent a home in Birmingham, where the judge who oversees Veteran’s Treatment Court agreed to supervise Worsley if he were transferred to Community Corrections. Dozens of people came together across professions and political divides to assemble an airtight re-entry plan with extraordinary levels of support. Worsley paid Pickens County the $3,858.40 in fines, fees, and court costs that had been assessed against him. The Alabama Department of Corrections deemed him suitable for transfer. 

All that the plan required was for the judge to exercise his lawful discretion to accept Worsley’s transfer into this community-based supervision in light of what so many people recognized to be a clear injustice and a waste of state resources.

That is not what happened. In a Sept. 3 order that focused on Worsley’s history of low-level, nonviolent offenses and probation violations, the judge denied the Community Corrections transfer request:  “Because the Defendant has fled this jurisdiction both times he was released, failed to comply with any condition of bond or probation and has 5 felony convictions, including one he received while on probation from this Court’s sentence, this Court finds that the Defendant is not a suitable candidate for placement in the Community Corrections Program,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, the request is DENIED.”

Pickens County District Attorney Andy Hamlin has repeatedly said that he could have pushed for Mr. Worsley’s immediate incarceration from the start. “Remember, at the time of the plea, he was a four-time convicted felon. Given his circumstances and military service, I used discretion and asked the court to put him on probation. I must apply the law consistently and fairly with every case that comes through my office. Any special treatment to Mr. Worsley would have set a precedent that would have been unfair to others with similar histories and charges,” Mr. Hamlin wrote in an email to Appleseed.

“We find ourselves here not because of failed policies or any nefarious act by anyone that works in law  enforcement or the court system, but because Mr. Worsley failed to exercise any personal responsibility or agency,” Hamlin wrote.  

Any day now, a fragile, disabled man who sacrificed his health and youth to serve his country will be thrown into the most dangerous prisons in America – prisons that have been declared unconstitutional, and which do not have any semblance of functioning mental health services – because he made the mistake of bringing legally prescribed medication into a state where that medication is not legal, and because his homelessness, disability, and the differences between Alabama and Arizona drug laws prevented him from successfully complying with probation. 

Sean and Eboni Worsley

It’s tempting to describe what was done to Sean Worsley as a travesty of justice. But that would imply that what happened to him is a distortion of how our justice system is meant to work. In Worsley’s case, our state’s justice system operated exactly as we have designed it to. What was done to Worsley was the result of Alabama laws being followed to the letter.

Over the years, Alabama lawmakers have had before them an array of bills that could have radically changed the outcome of Worsley’s unintentional violation of Alabama law. They knew that Black people are more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama despite both races using marijuana at roughly the same rate, yet declined to decriminalize simple possession of even small amounts. They knew that disparities in how Black and white communities are policed mean that Black people are far more likely to have criminal histories, yet took few steps to reduce the weight prior convictions would carry in determining a person’s sentence. They knew probation was costly and that people who lack resources struggle to comply with its demands, yet they took no steps to fix it. They knew our prisons were unconstitutionally overcrowded and deadly but have refused to act with urgency about the causes of the crisis. 

This is a summer of racial reckoning. On August 31, the white coach of the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide led his mostly Black team in a Black Lives Matter march to the Tuscaloosa schoolhouse door that George Wallace once blocked. Four days later, in a courthouse just one county over, Alabama’s criminal punishment system shambled on, working exactly how it’s meant to – exactly as we let it work, despite knowing the terrible consequences.