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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.

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.

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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.

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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 | Facts are stubborn things

Joey Kennedy

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I’m in my 20th year of teaching in the English Department at UAB. I’ve never taught my primary discipline, journalism, and I really don’t have much of a desire to, either.

Yet, in 2017, the leadership of UAB’s University Honors Program asked me to be a part of their interdisciplinary faculty for the fall. UHP’s fall semesters are themed, and that year, the first year of Donald Trump’s term as president, the theme was appropriate: “Evidence and Belief in a Post-Truth Society.” For UHP, I was a “communications” (journalism) professor. I taught with a scientist and public health professor, a religion professor, a philosophy professor, a literature professor and a psychology professor.

The students in this program – all 100-plus of them – are among the smartest students on campus. Needless to say, I was intimidated. For my first lecture before the students, I took a Xanax (it’s prescribed because I do have anxiety sometimes). The Xanax didn’t make me lecture better, but it made me not really care if I screwed up.

I’m sort of a one-trick pony – I teach and write in the only language I know: English. Here, you had neuroscience and biology and chemistry majors galore. And, yes, there were a few English and history and business and engineering students, too. Pretty much every discipline taught at UAB is represented in UHP, and certainly in its umbrella school, the UAB Honors College.

That fall went by quickly. I only took the Xanax for the first lecture. I settled into my groove pretty quickly. But when it was over, I ached for the continued intellectual stimulation I received as a teacher. I’m a lifetime learner, and that program taught me a lot. And I got to teach others a lot, too.

I thought it was a one-shot deal. Until, that is, the program’s director, Dr. Michael Sloane, asked me to return in the fall of 2018 to direct the first-year students’ literary analyses. And that fall, I was also asked to propose a UHP seminar class for the spring of 2020. I returned last fall to once again direct the first-year literary analysis. And I’ve been asked to return for first-year LAs again this coming fall.

This semester, I’m teaching the class I proposed, “Media and Social Justice.” And I’ve already got another self-created UHP seminar class scheduled for next spring, “Media and War: Men and Women Making a Difference on the Front Lines.”

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Unlike my composition and literature classes in the English Department, these seminars have no template. I have to create the teaching as I go. Some days, I’m very confident; others not so much.

I divided the “Media and Social Justice” class into six two-week units: Nellie Bly (mental illness and investigative journalism), The Jungle (food safety and immigration), Jim Crow Lives (the civil rights era and voter suppression), #MeToo (sexual assault and harassment), Black Lives Matters (police and other shootings of people of color), and March for Our Lives (gun violence and sensible gun regulation).

These classes are limited to 16 honors students, but 19 students wanted in my “Media and Social Justice” class, so I have 19 students.

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I teach these classes as a communications professor, not an English professor. I direct the literary analyses as a literature professor, not a communications professor.

We’re covering historical topics, for sure, but also contemporary topics. It doesn’t get any more current than Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, voter suppression, or March for Our Lives.

We don’t just talk about the journalism around these topics, but also about other media. For example, I find protest songs for each topic. While it’s not on our plate, did you know Trump has inspired a whole catalog of protest songs? Most every president inspires protest songs, though Trump has inspired an awful lot of them.

Maybe at some point, I’ll create a “Media and Donald J. Trump” class. There is plenty of material.

The point, though, is that we all should be lifelong learners. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from by English students and my honors students, how much the English faculty has taught me, and how much the faculty and directors of the University Honors Program have taught me.

That I get to return the favor by teaching these unique classes says a lot about UAB, and how it values critical thinking and learning.

I hope I never lose my enthusiasm for learning, or become too stubborn to change when the facts point toward another direction. That is our responsibility to the truth. I guess I am stubborn in one way: There are no alternative facts. Facts are truth, reality. The alternative is false, untruth, lies.

Readers, that’s a fact, and like me sometimes, facts are stubborn.

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

 

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Deception, subtlety and the wholesale destruction of current ethics laws mark proposed rewrite

Bill Britt

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Legislation proposed by Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, would radically alter the existing State Ethics Act rendering it useless as an effective tool to regulate the behavior of public officials, much less prosecute a rouge lawmaker.

Testifying at a pre-trial hearing in the criminal case against then-Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard in April 2015, Ball said the ethics laws needed amending to avoid prosecutions like Hubbard’s in the future.

If HB179 becomes law, Ball will have fulfilled the words he spoke at the Lee County Court House, where Hubbard was tried and convicted.

As House Ethics Committee Chair, Ball has sought to change the State’s Act since Hubbard was indicted.

Ball’s bill is subtly written from an enforcement and trial perspective to neuter the law.

Words are added, deleted, and meanings changed in ways that might look harmless but actually open the door for the kind of corruption Republicans vowed to change in 2010, when they passed the toughness in the nation’s ethics laws.

Beyond changes that would allow for general corruption to go unpunished, Ball’s legislation would strip the Attorney General and district attorneys of their power to prosecute anyone who violates the ethics laws without first securing approval from the State Ethics Commission.

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All prosecution of any public official would first have to be approved by the Ethics Commission, a group that has repeatedly shown that it bends its decisions according to the prevailing political winds.

HB179 reads in part, “This bill would prohibit the Attorney General or a district attorney from presenting a suspected ethics violation by an individual subject to the code of ethics, other than a member or employee of the commission, to a grand jury without a referral by the commission.”

In other words, Ball would have a politically-appointed commission decide if law-enforcement agencies can seek indictments against wrongdoers.

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Neither the Attorney General or a county district attorney can even impanel a grand jury in an ethics probe without the commission first finding probable cause.

Some of Ball’s alterations come in the form of removing whole sections of the law under the guise of redefining words, like “a thing of value” or “widely attended event.”

An example of how Ball’s legislation plays with the law is under the section of code, which defines a family member of a public official. Currently, a family member is “[t]he spouse, a dependent, an adult child and his or her spouse, a parent, a spouse’s parents, a sibling and his or her spouse, of the public official.” Ball changes it so it only includes a spouse and a dependent. That means that a public official may act to enrich his adult children, a parent, an in-law a brother, or a sister. These small but destructive alterations to the law are at the heart of Ball’s legislation.

Some loopholes are so extensive that a sitting legislator could be paid by a city or county governmental economic development entity and still seat in the Legislature voting on bills that might directly affect his consulting client.

Out-of-state junkets make a comeback as do several other goodies lawmakers have been desiring.

It seems Republicans want to cash in on the rewards of office like Democrats did once upon a time.

One thing is clear, Ball didn’t write the bill, but whoever did knew precisely what they were doing and were probably paid handsomely for their efforts.

There are so many cunningly deceptive changes to the ethics laws in Ball’s bill as to make it impossible to catch them all without days of intense study—and perhaps a team of lawyers.

Ball, one of Hubbard’s most an ardent defenders has said Hubbard’s indictment and conviction was a political witch hunt. He has said he wants to rewrite the ethics laws to save future Hubbards; it now looks as if he has.

 

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Opinion | As legislative session begins, priority will be resolving prison problems

Steve Flowers

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The 2020 Legislative Session, which began last week, will be the second session of Governor Kay Ivey’s administration.  For the second straight year, she and the legislature will be facing a major obstacle.

The prison problem is the paramount issue for the year.  The state must address and resolve this dilemma or the federal authorities will take over our prisons.

The U.S. Justice Department has decreed that the constitutional rights of inmates are being violated because they are in overcrowded conditions which can lead to extreme violence.  The federal justice officials say overcrowding and excess violence is caused by a shortage of staff and beds for inmates.

Our men’s prisons are at 170 percent of the system’s capacity.  In the past few weeks it has gone from bad to worse with a forced transfer of more than 600 inmates from Holman Prison.  Our Holman correctional facility is generally where our most hardened criminals are housed.

Gov. Ivey and this legislature did not cause this problem.  It has been building up and festering for years.  The chickens have just come home to roost under her watch but she is attempting to handle the problem adroitly.  

The Governor and her administration have worked openly and pragmatically with the Justice Department in clearly defined negotiations.  It might be added that the Justice Department has worked congruently and candidly with the Ivey administration and given them clear guidelines in order to avoid federal intervention.  

Gov. Ivey and the Justice Department are taking a harmonious approach, which is a far cry from the Gov. George Wallace versus Judge Frank Johnson demagogic rhubarb of past years.  In that case, the state lost and we lost in a big way.  When the federal courts take over a state’s prison system, they dictate and enforce their edicts and simply give the state the bill.  It is a pretty large, unpredictable price tag.  The feds always win.

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Gov. Ivey will take information from a study group she appointed, led by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Champ Lyons as well as negotiate with the Justice Department and offer proposals they need from the legislature along with administrative decisions to remedy the prison problem.

Leading the legislative efforts will be State Senator Cam Ward who has been the lead dog in the prison reform efforts. The problem hopefully will be resolved during this session.

Gov. Ivey will not use the approach she did last year with rebuild Alabama when she adjourned the Regular Session and placed the legislature in Special Session to address the issue on a solo stand-alone platform.  It will be tackled within the confines of the Regular Session.  If the solution is to build three new, modern men’s prisons the state will be faced with some heavy lifting because the big question becomes, how do we pay for them?

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The answer may be in a lottery.  For the umpteenth year, a proposal to let Alabamians vote to keep the money from lottery tickets in our state coffers.  We are one of only four states in America who derive no money from lottery proceeds.  We are surrounded on all four sides of our state by sister southern states that reap the benefits of our citizens purchase of lottery tickets.This could be the year that the legislature votes to allow their constituents the right to vote yes or no to keep our own money.

You can bet your bottom dollar that if it gets on the ballot, it will pass.  Alabamians, both Democratic and Republican, will vote for passage.  Even if they do not have any interest in purchasing a lottery ticket.  They are tired of seeing their money go to Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi or Florida.  Those that like to buy them are tired of driving to our neighboring states to give them money for their school children and roads.

It also may have a better chance of getting to the voters this year because the sponsor, Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) is a respected veteran and Chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee. His proposal is also a very simple paper lottery.

However, for the first time Gov. Ivey addressed the issue in her State of the State Address. She is calling for a study commission on the subject which could further delay our having a lottery.

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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Elections

Opinion | Voter suppression is still a deciding factor in Alabama elections

Josh Moon

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John Merrill is going to write me a snarky letter, and that’s OK. 

I’m going to write a snarky column about Alabama’s voter suppression — and Merrill’s role in it — and I don’t write these things expecting everyone to agree. I write them so at least a few people will at least consider that the way things are in this state aren’t the way they have to be. 

And nowhere is that more true than with Alabama’s access to the ballot box. 

Now, before Merrill and the other rightwing hacks start banging out replies, let’s get a few things straight. Because while all of them will be entitled to their own opinions, they won’t be entitled to their own facts. 

A standard response from the right whenever these matters of ballot access pop up is to demand to know the identity of a single person who lacks the ability or necessary access to be able to vote. Name someone, Merrill loves to say, and I’ll go to their house and make sure … blah, blah, blah. 

But this is not the point, and they know it. 

As the Southern Poverty Law Center points out in a new report, what Alabama lawmakers have done is to place speed bumps between voters and the ballot in the hopes that with enough speed bumps they can discourage certain targeted groups from voting. 

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That’s the point of Alabama’s voter ID law. And it’s not hard to prove. 

Correspondence between lawmakers in North Carolina — which has ID laws that Alabama lawmakers essentially copied — laid bare just how targeted and intentionally suppressive the ID law was in that state. A federal judge wrote that it targeted black voters with “surgical precision.” 

The same thing is happening here. Because the same laws are being used here. 

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ID laws largely target poor, minority communities and young people, and they establish a barrier between those would-be voters and the polls. They also do absolutely zero to prevent fraud in this state. 

It doesn’t matter how many roving caravans Merrill and his staff set up to get IDs to people. The fact remains that thousands of people are being forced to take an extra step, and/or pay extra money, to cast a legal vote. 

Under our old system, which allowed dozens of different forms to establish a voter’s ID, we had zero issues. In fact, in the last 30 years, there has been one instance in which a voter’s identity was stolen and an illegal ballot cast. And that one instance was caught and prosecuted. 

Whenever a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist is implemented into law, you can bet that the goal wasn’t to actually solve a problem. It was to create one for someone else. 

Alabama doesn’t stop there. 

In addition to a worthless ID law, we also don’t offer same-day — or even same-week — voter registration. Instead, the deadline to register is 14 days prior to an election, which, in this cyber world where everything is handled by computers, is an eternity. 

It used to be just seven days. But after the Voting Rights Act was gutted a few years ago, Alabama lawmakers took the opportunity to target a handful of different groups. They got minority voters with the ID laws, and they took aim at young voters by toying with the registration laws. 

Young voters tend to procrastinate and tend to be driven by their peers. As the hype around an election grows, the more interested they become.

And since young people tend to vote for Democrats, well, I think you see how we got here. 

That’s not all. 

There is also no automatic voter registration in Alabama, which makes no sense with the voter ID law in place. If you have the proper ID, why in the world couldn’t you register online and go vote the same day? Why couldn’t you fill out the registration form at the polling place? 

None of it makes any sense, unless, of course, your goal isn’t to make the process of registering to vote as easy as possible, but is instead to deter certain groups of people from casting a ballot. 

To be clear, I don’t necessarily blame Merrill for any of this, and you shouldn’t either. As far as Republican secretaries of state go, he hasn’t been that bad, and has on many occasions gone out of his way to offset the negative effects of these suppressive laws. 

That said, voting and ballot access is within the purview of the SOS’s office, and as such, Merrill has a duty to speak up when unfair laws are passed and implemented. He has a duty to correct injustices in the state’s voting processes, and he has a duty to inform the Legislature when laws they pass are having a negative effect. 

It doesn’t matter the percentage of people that Merrill’s office has registered to vote, or how many registrations he’s managed from his caravan. 

The goal is fair elections. And Alabama’s are far from it.

 

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