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Opinion | Alabama’s civil forfeiture laws aren’t just unfair, they’re un-American

Josh Moon

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By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter

Last week, Barry Matson, the executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, stood before a Senate committee and said flatly that “rumors” of improper civil asset forfeitures in this state were just not true.

He should try telling that line of bull to Jamey Vibbert.

If you’re unfamiliar with the civil asset forfeiture laws of Alabama — and around the country — or if you merely think everything is probably OK because Jeff Sessions, one of the worst people on earth, says they are, let me explain.

Essentially, these laws give law enforcement the ability to seize assets — such as cars, guns, homes, cash, etc. — that it determines has come into the possession of a criminal and because of criminal conduct. For example, the cash was in the criminal’s possession as a result of selling drugs.

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So, the cops take that property. Ever been riding down the Interstate and see blue lights flashing on an unmarked car, like a Lexus or a Corvette? The cops likely got that car by way of a civil forfeiture case.

Now, I don’t think anyone has an issue with those seizures, except maybe the criminal. But here’s where the problems arise: there is a very flimsy level of proof that must be met in order for cops to confiscate a person’s property and keep it.

That level of proof falls well short of the usual reasonable doubt standard, and the process for civil forfeitures also turns the innocent-until-proven-guilty standard that’s the backbone of our legal system on its head.

In fact, the system is so, so flawed that it often results in people who are found innocent of charges expending their personal money in a civil trial, in which they sue the government, in order to FORCE the return of their property. And in such a case, the citizen plaintiff is forced to prove why he or she should be entitled to the return of their property.

It might be the most anti-American process in all of government.

And if you doubt this, have a chat with Vibbert.

Several years ago, Vibbert sold a couple of cars to a guy who he’d never met before. The guy walked onto Vibbert’s used car lot, bought two cars and drove away.

A few months later, that guy was arrested for dealing drugs and the cops were at Vibbert’s doorstep. Naively, he cooperated, believing he was helping law enforcement lock up a dangerous criminal.

Instead, those law enforcement agents were building a case against him.

Not necessarily because they believed Vibbert was guilty, but because they wanted the $25,000 in cash that had been paid to him. And they only wanted that cash after they learned that seizing the two cars from the drug dealer would cost them about as much as the cars were worth, according to Vibbert, who recently wrote an op-ed for al.com.

So, they arrested Vibbert and seized his money.

A few months later, he was found not guilty. During that trial, he said the judge stated on the record that he didn’t believe the civil forfeiture laws should extend to Vibbert.

But that didn’t deter the state, which refused to give the money back. Which seems odd, given the very transparent system that Matson told lawmakers about — the one that prevents such injustices.

Vibbert was forced to sue. And by the time he got his money back, Vibbert, the three-time “Ambassador of the Year” for the Dothan Chamber of Commerce, was out about $300,000 and had lost his business.

How could such a thing happen?

Easy answer: Money.

Police departments and sheriffs’ offices around the state have come to rely on asset seizures as a means to fund certain things, such as drug task forces. With budgets so tight and this conservative state unwilling to raise taxes to support anything, they’re in a crunch.

So, instead of raising taxes, they’re sacrificing personal rights. And the willingness to do so, while justifying it by citing money is more than a tad concerning.

An op-ed written by the presidents of the DAs Association and the Sheriffs Association literally asks this question: “What incentive would local police and sheriffs have to invest manpower, resources and time in these operations if they don’t receive proceeds to cover their costs?”

Ummm, the incentive of fighting crime?

I’m sorry, but you can’t justify every action by pointing to the pile of money it produces. Because, and try to follow me here, that’s sort of what criminals do.

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Opinion | Trump’s con game is almost over

Josh Moon

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It’s all true.

All of the rumors. All of the speculation. All of the oh-my-God-have-you-heard-about whispers.

All of it is true.

All of the things that Donald Trump and his administration and family have been accused of doing … they actually did them. All of them.

Even the really dumb ones.

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Even the really awful ones.

They did it all.

Oh, listen, I know that the typical Alabama conservative voter has zero idea what I’m talking about right now, because they have so fully wrapped themselves in the protective bubble of conservative opinion sources that they’re still talking about the Clinton Foundation. But I don’t care.

Because this isn’t speculation. Or partisan hopefulness. Or ignorant accusations.

This is under oath.

And right now, after the last two weeks, here’s what people under oath, facing the penalty of perjury and providing supporting evidence and documentation, have said about the conman you people elected president: He has lied repeatedly. He has directed illegal payments. He has sought to cover up affairs. He has bought off a tabloid. At least 14 members of senior campaign staff were in contact with Russians. And Trump — or “Individual 1,” as he’s known in court filings these days — was involved in it all.

Trump’s personal attorney has now been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for a crime personally directed by the president.

That makes five — FIVE! — of Trump’s top aides or attorneys who have struck deals with Robert Mueller and are now working with the broad investigation into possible (certain) Russian interference and collusion.

And it doesn’t stop there.

Trump’s personal businesses are also under federal investigation. His campaign staff’s use of funds is now under federal investigation. And most of his immediate family is under investigation.

And absolutely none of this should be a surprise to anyone.

Because all of you should have known well before this clown was elected president that he is nothing more than a two-bit conman with an ego large enough to fill a stadium and less shame than a 90-year-old stripper.

You should know because we told you. We, the media. The actual media.

We wrote story after story on this crook and his shady business dealings — how he rarely paid his bills, how he left working men holding the bill, how he created a scam college to bilk poor people out of money, how he skirted laws and tax codes constantly and how he gamed the system over and over again to stay wealthy using taxpayer money.

All of it was right there for anyone to read.

But a good portion of this country didn’t care. They were too caught up in this buffoon making jokes and calling people names and kicking people out of rallies and saying offensive things. He catered to white men and claimed he could fix any problem just by saying he could fix any problem.

And they bought it. Just like the conman planned. You didn’t even make this dude show you his tax returns!

And the white, working-class folks are still buying it. Which would make sense if he had done even one thing to help them.

But he hasn’t.

His economic policies have been a disaster, especially for the people of Alabama. And his tough talk has produced zilch in the way of foreign respect, better trade deals, lower prices for consumers or more American jobs. In fact, we’ve lost respect, have worse deals and higher prices and companies are still moving American jobs to other countries.

And yet, the supporters remain.

I don’t understand it. But you know what? I don’t have to understand it for much longer.

The walls are quickly closing around the conman president. Soon, the rest of Mueller’s investigation will drop, and the indictments will roll out. The full breadth of the Trump administration’s illegal acts will be laid out for Congress to see. Given what we already know from the few filings that have been made public, this will not go well for Trump and his closest associates.

I do not expect the Trump supporters to ever admit they were wrong.

But if there is justice in this world, and if the indictments break just right, those supporters will have to deal — at least for a brief period — with the two words that could make this whole thing almost worth it.

President Pelosi.

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Opinion | Do what’ll really help: Expand Medicaid

Joey Kennedy

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We’ll certainly see whether state Sen. Greg Reed’s support of the new Medicaid Integrated Care Network is worthy and that the program does what is promised. Let’s hope it does, but pardon my cynicism, because any health care program these days that promises to do more for millions of dollars less falls under my “too-good-to-be-true” doctrine.

That just doesn’t happen.

Reed wrote about the ICN for Alabama Political Reporter Wednesday, and here’s how he describes it: “In October of this year, the state Medicaid agency partnered with an Alabama health care provider that will now serve the medical needs of the 23,000 senior citizens who are receiving Medicaid’s long-term care services, 70 percent of whom are in nursing homes. By partnering with an expert health care provider based in Alabama, Medicaid can offer its long-term patients better care – and thus allow more Medicare recipients to stay longer in the comfort of their own home.”

This program, Reed writes, “is projected to save, over the long run, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.”

Too bad that Reed, the Jasper Republican who is Majority Leader, isn’t pushing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. That would do far more to help poor Alabamians, especially the working poor. Hundreds of thousands of Alabamians can’t get health insurance because they don’t qualify for subsidies, yet make too much to qualify for Medicaid.

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While helping Alabama seniors live at home longer is a great goal, it’s doubtful they’ll get better care for millions of dollars less.

Expanding Medicaid under the ACA isn’t going to save the state money, either. It’ll cost millions of dollars more, though a fraction of what it would cost without the federal dollars that’ll come into the state with expansion.

And with that expansion comes more jobs and economic development, and many hospitals, particularly in rural areas on the verge of bankruptcy, can keep their doors open, saving good-paying jobs there and at businesses that benefit from development around hospitals.

Expanding Medicaid is about the best economic development decision the Legislature and governor could make. Alabama should have expanded Medicaid from the outset, but the politics of hating President Barack Obama kept that from happening. It was more important to stick it to the first black president than to make sure more Alabama residents had access to health care.

Frankly, that still seems to be the goal.

We just had an election, and Alabama voters decided they’d rather keep the same crew in charge – the one that continues to make life-and-death decisions against their best interests.

For too many, an unconstitutional amendment to our state constitution that practically bans a woman’s choice was more important than making sure that women have decent health care. An unconstitutional amendment glorifying the Ten Commandments is more important than making sure those commandments are kept in the way we deliver services to the least of these.

So really, I’m rooting for Reed on doing something to provide more Medicaid services to Alabama senior citizens. But I’m rooting even more that Reed and his Republican colleagues change their can’t-do mind-set and expand Medicaid under the ACA.

Even if they still, for no good reason, hate the man who made the ACA possible.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | Inside the Statehouse: Last of famous probate judges: Hardy McCollum

Steve Flowers

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In Alabama political history, the office of Probate Judge was the most powerful and prestigious position. In the old days, in every county in Alabama, the probate judge was not only judge, he also appointed all county positions, hired all county employees and was Chairman of the County Commission. He was essentially the “King of the County.”

In bygone days, gubernatorial candidates ran grassroots campaigns. There were no televisions, therefore, the first and maybe the only stop they would make in their quest for the Governor’s mansion, was to kiss the ring of and get the endorsement of the probate judge. The omnipotent probate judge would endorse them and that endorsement usually meant that that they would carry that county. The local folks would follow the lead of their judge. They and their county would be on the right side of the governor’s race.

The last vestige of the era of vintage Probate Judges will end this year with the retirement of Tuscaloosa Probate Judge, Hardy McCollum.

Judge McCollum is only 71. However, Alabama law disallows judges from running for reelection after age 70. He has been the longest serving probate judge in the state, and at the time of his first election in 1976, he was the youngest probate judge in Alabama. Hardy was elected at age 28, and took the coveted office of Probate Judge at the ripe old age of 29. Hardy McCollum has served his home county as Probate Judge for 42 years.

During that time, he has consistently been considered the most popular political figure in his county. He has always run as a Democrat. When the tide turned and the state went Republican in the 1980’s and 90’s and most of the state’s prominent politicians switched to the Republican Party, Hardy refused to change. He withstood the tidal wave and remained the most revered public official in Tuscaloosa County.

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The anomaly of his popularity is that he continues to hold the title of Chairman of the County Commission, a rarity in this day and time, especially for a large county like Tuscaloosa. There are only 15 counties in the state left where the Probate Judge still serves as Chairman of the County Commission and, only two populous counties, Lee and Tuscaloosa.

Hardy McCollum was born and raised in Tuscaloosa. He learned at an early age how much the Goodrich and Gulf States paper plants meant to Tuscaloosa. Druid City was also dependent upon public employees. Tuscaloosa was home to the state mental health institutions, Bryce and Partlow. The University of Alabama has always been Tuscaloosa’s mainstay. Hardy grew up selling peanuts, popcorn and programs at Denny Stadium.

Hardy married his high school sweetheart, Juanita. They both graduated from Tuscaloosa High School and they both continued on and graduated from the University of Alabama.

They have three children, Jay, Jason, and Joy. Hardy and Juanita are fortunate that all three live in Tuscaloosa. They are able to enjoy their five grandchildren. Their second son, Jason, and Tuscaloosa mayor, Walt Maddox, grew up together as neighbors and best friends.

After college, Hardy began work in Tuscaloosa and became active in the Jaycees, which was a normal training ground for aspiring politicos in those days. His first political experience was campaigning for Richard Shelby for the State Senate in 1970.

In his first race for office, he was elected as Probate Judge. After that initial election in 1976, he was subsequently reelected to six more six-year terms, serving from 1976 through 2018. He had opposition every time but dispensed of his opponents easily each time.

Hardy’s last reelection in 2012 was the one that caught the eye of most political observers throughout the state. President Barack Obama was heading the Democratic ticket. It was a tsunami wipeout of almost every white Democrat in the Heart of Dixie. This red tidal wave also swept through Tuscaloosa. Hardy McCollum stood out like a sore thumb. Hardy McCollum, who had refused to change parties, withstood the tidal wave and won reelection as a Democratic Probate Judge with 67 percent of the vote against a Republican Sheriff.

There is an old saying in Alabama politics that home folks know you best. Hardy attributed his longevity and success to always doing the right thing regardless of whether it is politically popular. People will respect you if you are doing the right thing.

Hardy McCollum has done the right thing for his home county for 42-years. It’s time for him to go to the house and, hopefully, he will enjoy his retirement years. You can rest assured they will be spent in his beloved Tuscaloosa County. He will be replaced as Probate Judge by a Republican. It marks the passing of an era in Alabama politics.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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Corruption

Opinion | The fight against public corruption isn’t lost yet

Josh Moon

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This will likely not surprise you: I get a lot of correspondence.

Emails. Twitter direct messages. Facebook messages. Text messages.

Every day. All day long. They come rolling in, usually from someone who disagrees with something I’ve written or has taken issue with something I said on TV or who wants to say something bad about my mama.

At this point, there’s very little contained in a letter or message to me that would surprise me.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought until the last couple of weeks.

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When the Matt Hart letters started rolling in.

If you don’t know by now, Hart is the recently fired head of the Alabama Attorney General’s special prosecutions office — the team that prosecutes political corruption. If that seems like it should be a relatively obscure position, well, it should.

Except for a couple of things: 1. We have a ton of political corruption in Alabama, and 2. Hart went after all of the crooks, regardless of party or political influence.

For those reasons, I guess, people in this state paid attention to the guy who was doing the prosecuting. And right now, I feel safe in saying that no one topic has prompted more messages than Hart’s firing by AG Steve Marshall a couple of weeks ago.

Those messages generally fall into two categories: 1. “I’m mad as hell!,” or 2. “What are we gonna do now?”

If you’ve written me one of these letters and not received a reply, consider this your answer.

I get it, and I don’t know.

The fact is Hart’s ouster, which comes a year after his top deputy — AG candidate Alice Martin — also resigned, is a significant blow.

Hart and Martin are a sort of white-collar-crime-fighting duo, beginning with their days in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Alabama. As al.com’s Kyle Whitmire pointed out recently, prosecutions of political corruption spiked in that office while Hart and Martin were on the job.

Then those prosecutions spiked at the AG’s office when Hart landed there.

At the federal level, Hart was chasing primarily Democrats. At the state level, after the GOP takeover, it was Republicans.

Because corruption doesn’t vote straight ticket, even if you do.

But now, we’re in trouble.

Taking Hart’s spot is a prosecutor who has never tried a public corruption case and who has spent her life in and around state politics and defense attorneys. Maybe Clark Morris will be a fantastic prosecutor and turn this state upside down rooting out public corruption — I truly hope that’s the case and I’ll be happy to write about it if so — but I have my doubts that she’ll be half as dogged as Hart has been.

And so, I guess that leaves the business of exposing and stopping public corruption to just one person: You.

That’s right, you. And me. And all of the good people who live in this state who are sick of crooks and political welfare and good ol’ boys and smoky back rooms and brother-in-law deals and pay-to-play scams.

You all care about this stuff. I have your letters to prove it.

So, it’s time to take some action. To pay attention to what’s going on. To show up at board meetings and council work sessions and county commission meetings and state legislature committee hearings. It’s time to start asking questions and making phone calls and writing letters.

If you need help, I guarantee you that we at APR will help all we can. And I’m certain other media outlets will help, too. Whether it be with making sure you know when and where to go for meetings or helping expose the corruption or illegal behavior you find.

Our system of government was set up from top to bottom to represent everyday people, and it is designed — in most cases by law — to give the people it represents a voice.

Look, I know you’re busy. I know you have lives and jobs and kids and the dog isn’t going to drive itself to the vet, but this is important too. In fact, it might be the most important thing, because it literally encompasses almost all of your life — from the taxes and fees and costs you pay every day to the quality of your kids’ schools to the success of the company you work for to the 401k you’re relying on.

It matters.

And it’s up to you to make sure the crooks don’t win.

 

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Opinion | Alabama’s civil forfeiture laws aren’t just unfair, they’re un-American

by Josh Moon Read Time: 4 min
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