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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 | The BCA mess isn’t difficult to unravel

Josh Moon

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It’s been a rough week for the Business Council of Alabama.

The top lobbyist group in the state has been decimated by big-name defections. It started with Alabama Power and PowerSouth. Then Regions Bank. Then Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama. And now Protective Life Insurance. And there are strong rumors that Drummond Coal and Thompson Caterpillar are soon to follow.

All of those companies mentioned have expressed concerns — either while announcing their departure or while threatening to leave — over BCA CEO Bill Canary.

They felt Canary wasn’t getting the job done. They wanted him out. They wanted him out now.

The BCA board, led by Perry Hand, tried to block that. For reasons that are both dumb and seemingly personally beneficial to Hand and his company, Volkert Construction.

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And now there is debate in political circles over who’s right, who’s wrong and what it all means.

On the first two, there should be no debate. And anyone who is honest and who has spent an hour around the State House over the last two years knows it.

Alabama Power and these other major companies didn’t randomly decide one day that they didn’t like Canary’s suits and wanted him fired. They took a look at the scoreboard. And it clearly showed that Canary was getting killed.

And by that, I mean he had lost his influence in the State House. Most of it he squandered away by using too much stick and not enough carrot when dealing with lawmakers. He tried to bully his way around and such tactics quickly wear thin among grown people.

The companies contributing dues to the BCA do so for one purpose: for that organization to promote their best interest and help push business-friendly ideas in the state Legislature.

That’s the primary benefit of the BCA’s existence.

If the guy the BCA is paying big dollars to push that agenda is so disliked that state lawmakers are voting against BCA-backed legislation just to spite him, that’s what we call a gots-to-go situation.

That was 100-percent taking place with Canary in the State House.

Two years ago, the BCA was shut out on its top-priority bills. This past session, they got one — an unpopular weakening of state ethics laws that likely cost several lawmakers their seats — and lost their biggest.

Privately, Republican lawmakers, who once happily strolled into the building and voted for anything BCA sponsored, were so disenchanted with Canary and BCA that they told me they would vote against anything the organization backed. They were tired of being threatened, they said. And they were tired of Canary telling them what to do instead of working with them.

If you’re Alabama Power or Regions Bank or BCBS, and you’re dumping six figures annually into this association in order to promote your interests at the State House, you can’t have that.

And it’s that simple.

What’s hilarious to me is that there’s now this narrative being pushed on paid political blogs and in paid-for newspaper columns that somehow APCO and these other defecting businesses were too liberal and didn’t share the conservative, pro-business goals of Hand and the BCA.

Lord have mercy. I think I know liberal when I see it. And trust me, APCO, Regions and BCBS ain’t it.

Even if they pushed former Democratic House Speaker Seth Hammett to be the new BCA CEO. That decision, too, boiled down to simple business.

Hammett is the anti-Canary. He’s nice, well respected, well liked and doesn’t even own a stick. Basically, exactly the sort of change the organization needed.

But that’s a moot point now, I suppose. What’s left to consider is where things go from here, and it seems that other BCA defections offer some indication of the future plans.

In addition to top companies, board member Mike Kemp and legal counsel Fournier “Boots” Gale also resigned from BCA this week. Kemp was the chairperson of BCA’s political action committee, PROGRESSPAC.

If the departing companies intended to start a new lobbying group, or join an existing one, those specific members would be fairly important.

Whether that’s the case or not, certainly no one believes that APCO, Regions and BCBS are going to stop pushing their legislative agendas and backing bills that aid their companies and the state’s business climate.

Because just like with the push to remove Canary, the bottom line for them is money.

 

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Opinion | The most important election ever

Joey Kennedy

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Is this the country we want to be? Is this the state we love.

I truly wonder.

We always say there is never an election more important than the one at hand. It’s become a cliché.

But, folks, there’s never been a more important election than the mid-term election this  November. It may be cliché, but it’s absolutely true.

If you are eligible to vote but not registered, get registered now. Don’t keep putting it off.

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In the recent Republican and Democratic primaries in Alabama, only 26 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

That means 74 percent of registered voters stayed at home. Even that isn’t a true reflection of voter apathy in Alabama. Many more people in Alabama are eligible to vote, but simply don’t bother to register. Considering eligible voters, Alabama’s turnout is likely well below 25 percent.

Imagine fewer than 25 percent of eligible voters deciding who is going to head their parties’ tickets come November. In the few primary runoffs in July, the turnout likely will be single digits.

There’s no more crucial time for eligible voters to cast their ballots than this year.

Just look at the ongoing horror on our nation’s borders with Mexico. President Trump signed an executive order this week to prevent immigrant families from being split apart, but there’s debate over whether that means a whole lot. Trump only signed the order after tear-inducing descriptions and photos showed the terrible conditions that immigrant children were being housed in. So-called “tender age shelters,” little more than internment camps or prisons for toddlers and babies, was the last straw. Even tough-man Donald Trump couldn’t stand the backlash, so after saying he didn’t have the authority to keep families from being separated, he then signed an executive order ending his own policy of separating families.

Trump folded completely, but he folded on a terrible crisis of his own making.

Trump’s disgusting immigration decisions aren’t his only horrible policies. The assault on health insurance coverage, trade wars with our closest allies, destruction of the Environmental Protection Agency – the list goes on and on.

And on.

The bigger picture, though, is that voters allowed this to happen. More precisely, eligible voters who didn’t bother to register or vote allowed this to happen.

That’s why the cliché is true: There’s never been a more important election than this November’s midterms.

We’re not voting on a president, true, but we are selecting U.S. House members. Sure, Alabama polls overwhelmingly in support of Trump, but that’s not unusual in a state where voters so often go against their own interests.

Let’s not do that this time.

There are many more Democrats than usual running for office in Alabama this year. Get to know them. Learn what they stand for.

There are good Republicans, too, especially in local races.

On the statewide level, not so much, though, especially when compared to their Democratic Party opponents.

At the top, Tuscaloosa Mayor and Democrat Walt Maddox is eminently more qualified than Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, who supported a child molester for the U.S. Senate simply because he was a Republican, and who has refused to debate her opponents.

Go down the list. Remember that the party in charge in Alabama (and in Congress) is a party that wants to keep voter turnout as low as possible. It’s the only way they stay in control.

But to vote, you must be registered. And if you’re registered, you must travel to a polling place to cast your ballot.

Never, ever vote straight ticket. Vote a smart ticket.

Especially this year.

Because there’s never been a more important election.

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: Judicial races highlighted – June 5 primary

Steve Flowers

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This is not just a gubernatorial year in the Heart of Dixie.

We have every constitutional office up for election which includes Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, State Treasurer, State Auditor and Agriculture Commissioner.

We also have a good many of the State Judicial races on the ballot. We have nine seats on our State Supreme Court. We have five judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals, as well as five seats on the Court of Civil Appeals. All of these judicial posts are held by Republicans. Therefore, it is more than likely safe to assume that the winner of the Republican primary will be elected to a six-year term and can be fitted for their robe, at least by July 17. In fact, Democrats usually do not even field candidates in state judicial races.

Over the past two decades, a prevailing theme has been that women have become favored in state judicial races. In fact, it was safe to say that if you put two candidates on the ballot for a state judicial position, one named John Doe and the other Jane Doe, and neither campaigned or spent any money, Jane Doe would defeat John Doe.

However, for some inexplicable reason, this prevalence reversed itself on June 5, in the Republican primary. In the much-anticipated race for the extremely important Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, position two of the sitting members of the Supreme Court were pitted against each other. 

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Justice Lyn Stuart, who is the longest serving member on the State Supreme Court, had moved into the Chief Justice role after the departure of Judge Roy Moore. She was running for Chief Justice for the full six-year term. Justice Tom Parker was Roy Moore’s closest ally and is now the most socially conservative activist on the court. Parker and Moore dip from the same well.

Parker chose to challenge Stuart for Chief Justice. The Lyn Stuart vs Tom Parker contest was billed as one of the Titanic battles of the Primary season. Stuart was the darling of the business community. Parker openly was carrying the banner of the social conservatives. Parker bested Stuart 52 percent to 48 percent. Most of Parker’s financial backing came from plaintiff trial lawyers. Parker does have Democratic opposition from Birmingham attorney, Robert Vance, Jr. However, he should win election in November.

Judge Brad Mendheim was facing two prominent female Circuit judges, Debra Jones of Anniston and Sarah Hicks Stewart of Mobile, for Place 1 on the State Supreme Court. Mendheim has been a longtime popular Circuit Judge in Dothan. He was appointed to this Supreme Court seat by Governor Kay Ivey earlier this year.  Mendheim decisively outdistanced his female opponents by garnering 43 percent of the vote. He is expected to win election to a full six-year term on the high tribunal on July 17.

Another example of the male uprising in the court contests occurred in the race for a seat on the Court of Civil Appeals. Judge Terri Willingham Thomas, who has been on this court since 2006 and has served with distinction, was shockingly defeated by her unknown male opponent, Chad Hanson.

Pickens County Prosecutor Chris McCool forged to the front in the race for a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals. He led 43 to 35 over Rich Anderson from the Montgomery/River Region.

In the other court races, the candidate who raised the most money and was able to buy some TV time prevailed.

In the State Supreme Court race in Place 4, two Birmingham attorneys, John Bahakel and Jay Mitchell, were pitted against each other. Mitchell significantly outspent Bahaked and won 73 to 27.

Christy Edwards of Montgomery and Michelle Thomason of Baldwin County are headed for a runoff for a seat on the Court of Civil Appeals.

Richard Minor defeated Riggs Walker overwhelmingly 66 to 34 for a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals. In the seat for Place 3 on the Court of Criminal Appeals there was yet another display of male dominance in the court races. Bill Cole bested Donna Beaulieu 60 to 40. 

On Saturday before the Primary, legendary Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Clement Clay “Bo” Torbert, passed away at 88 in his beloved City of Opelika. His funeral was on Election Day. Judge Torbert served as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for 12 years, 1976 to 1988. He had previously served two terms in the State Senate prior to his election as Chief Justice.

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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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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