The Southern Poverty Law Center is challenging the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets belonging to low-income Alabamians who are unable to pay them.
The SPLC sued ALEA in federal court Monday, calling unconstitutional a law that allows the state to suspend a person’s license without notice and without taking into consideration their ability to pay the sometimes hefty fines. The SPLC says the practice violates the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses, placing an unfair and detrimental burden on low-income individuals who need transportation to get or keep their jobs.
“For those who can afford to pay, traffic tickets are a mere inconvenience,” the lawsuit reads. “But for those who cannot afford to pay, a traffic ticket can result in the loss of their driver’s license, which frequently has much more serious economic consequences. This is especially true in a state like Alabama where a vast majority of counties are rural and lack accessible public transportation to work, home, education, and medical care.”
The lawsuit says roughly 23,000 Alabama residents are without their licenses because they have been suspended for nonpayment under the rule allowing no warning and no consideration of ability to pay.
“A suspended driver’s license has disastrous implications for individuals living in poverty,” said Micah West, a senior staff attorney at the SPLC. “The U.S. Constitution prohibits the state from suspending a person’s driver’s license without first determining their ability to pay. Through this lawsuit, we hope to end this illegal practice in Alabama.”
Under an existing rule of criminal procedure — 26.11(i)(3) — Alabama courts can suspend driver’s licenses for nonpayment of traffic tickets. There are no stipulations within the code that require prior notice or an inquiry into the individual’s ability to pay the fines. The SPLC says the rules make an assumption of bad faith because the code also doesn’t require an express finding that the person willfully didn’t pay.
The SPLC argues that the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses require those safeguards for low-income individuals, who are less likely to have the financial means to afford tickets but are nonetheless fined at the same rates.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency is being sued because it carries out the courts’ suspensions. ALEA won’t reinstate a driver’s licenses until the individual has paid all outstanding fines and costs to the court.
The lawsuit says the practice leads to other financial and economic impacts on those who have their licenses suspended despite their ability to pay.
“Suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment makes it more difficult to travel to work and may exacerbate poverty,” SPLC attorneys wrote. “Persons whose licenses are suspended face an unenviable choice: drive illegally and risk further punishment, or stay home and forgo the ability to meet the daily needs of themselves and their families.”
Driving with a suspended license is a misdemeanor that can lead to up to six months in prison and a fine of $500, plus additional court costs, which could be hundreds of more dollars.
The SPLC, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of three Alabamians who had their licenses suspended, is seeking a preliminary injunction, which — if granted by a judge — would halt the practice while the case goes before the court.
The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare the rule unconstitutional and issue an order blocking ALEA from suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment under the law. The SPLC is also asking the court to reinstate any driver’s license previously suspended solely for nonpayment.
This isn’t the first time the SPLC has challenged a law like this. The pro-bono legal advocacy group has also challenged similar measures in North Carolina and Mississippi. In Mississippi, the SPLC was able to reach a settlement results in the state agreeing to lift failure to pay suspensions for more than 100,000 people.
Other lawsuits have also challenged similar rules in Michigan, California, Virginia and Tennessee.
One of the plaintiffs, Lakendra Cook, found her license was suspended earlier this year after she couldn’t afford to pay two traffic tickets totaling $456 in fines and court costs in Wetumpka Municipal Court, the SPLC said.
According to the SPLC, Cook works the night shift at a warehouse located eight miles from her home. The lawsuit says she barely earns enough money to pay her bills and sometimes has to choose between paying utility bills and paying for groceries for her son and her grandmother.
Because she has to work, take her son to school and get family members to medical appointments, she feels she has no choice but to drive because public transportation in Birmingham is limited, the lawsuit reads.
“Whenever I see a police officer my heart starts pounding and I start calculating in my head whether I will be able to afford bail if I am arrested for driving on a suspended license,” Cook said. “Driving on a suspended license makes me feel like I am a criminal even though my life largely consists of going to work and caring for my family. It is my hope that this lawsuit will result in a clearer path for me and others in a similar situation, to get our driver’s license back. No one should have their license suspended because they don’t have enough money to pay traffic tickets.”
New unemployment claims increased again last week
It is the highest number of new claims recorded in a single week since July.
There were 14,084 new unemployment claims filed last week, up from 10,986 new claims the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
The number of new claims was the highest in a single week since July.
Of last week’s claims, 11,124 were related to COVID-19, representing 79 percent. Of the previous week’s claims, 80 percent were related to COVID-19.
SPLC responds to arrest of man carrying Confederate flag inside U.S. Capitol
Kevin Seefried and his son, Hunter, face multiple charges connected with their alleged part in the deadly Capitol riot.
Widely shared images of a white man carrying a Confederate flag across the floor of the U.S. Capitol during last week’s deadly attempted insurrection is a jarring reminder of the treasonous acts that killed more than 750,000 Americans during the Civil War, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Just as defeated Confederate soldiers were forced to surrender the Civil War and end their inhumane treatment of Black people, the rioter who brazenly carried a Confederate flag into the Capitol has been forced to surrender to federal authorities,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement Friday following the arrests of Kevin Seefried, 51, and his 23-year-old son Hunter.
FBI Baltimore: Man carrying Confederate flag in Capitol last week turned himself in today in Wilmington. Name is Kevin Seefried. Son Hunter also arrested. pic.twitter.com/ZTSGzbesDF
— Jayne Miller (@jemillerwbal) January 14, 2021
Seefried, the Baltimore man allegedly seen in those photographs carrying the Confederate flag, and his son are charged with entering a restricted building and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. Hunter is also charged with destroying government property.
“Incited by the President’s disinformation campaign, the rioter’s decision to brazenly roam the halls of Congress clinging to this painful symbol of white supremacy was a jarring display of boundless white privilege,” Brooks’s statement reads. “Despite the revisionist history promoted by enthusiasts, his disgraceful display is proof that the Confederate flag clearly represents hate, not heritage.”
“Over 750,000 American lives were lost because of the Confederacy’s treasonous acts. We cannot allow more blood to be shed for efforts to split our Union. January’s immoral coup attempt is an embarrassment to the United States, and we call on the federal government to prosecute these insurrectionists to the fullest extent of the law.”
An affidavit detailing the charges states that videos taken during the riot show both Seefrieds enter the Capitol building through a broken window, that Hunter helped break, at about 2:13 p.m.
Both men on Jan. 12 voluntarily talked with FBI agents and admitted to their part in the riots, according to court records.
The elder Seefreid told the FBI agent that he traveled to the rally to hear Trump speak and that he and his son joined the march and were “led by an individual with a bull horn.”
There were numerous pro-Trump attendees at the rally and march to the Capitol who had bull horns, according to multiple videos taken that day, but at the front of one of the largest groups of marchers with a bull horn was far-right radio personality Alex Jones, who was walking next to Ali Alexander, organizer of the Stop the Steal movement.
Alexander in three separate videos has said he planned the rally, meant to put pressure on Congress voting inside the Capitol that day, with Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, and Arizona U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs. Alexander is now in hiding, according to The Daily Beast.
Congressman Brooks’s spokesman told APR on Tuesday that Brooks does not remember communicating with Alexander.
“Congressman Brooks has no recollection of ever communicating in any way with whoever Ali Alexander is. Congressman Brooks has not in any way, shape or form coordinated with Ali Alexander on the January 6th ‘Save America’ rally,” the statement from the congressman’s spokesman reads.
Jones and Alexander can be seen leading the march in a video taken and posted to Twitter by freelance journalist Raven Geary.
“This is history happening. We’re not giving into globalists. We’ll never surrender,” Jones yells into his bullhorn as they marched toward the Capitol.
Alabama officials working to ID missed COVID-19 deaths
It will be some time before we can truly understand the death and destruction caused by COVID-19.
The Alabama Department of Public Health has reported 598 COVID-19 deaths over the past three days, one of the highest three-day totals since the pandemic began. But many of those deaths happened weeks, and even months, ago — evidence of the work ADPH is doing to ensure all deaths caused by the disease are counted.
Despite the common myth that many COVID-19 deaths are of people who didn’t actually die from the disease, the opposite is often true. The death toll is likely an undercount. The Alabama Department of Public Health since Nov. 11 has been working to make sure those who died from the disease, or from illnesses brought on by it, are properly classified as such.
At least 5,945 people have died from COVID-19 in Alabama as of Thursday, according to ADPH.
At least 792 Alabamans died from COVID-19 in December, making it one of the deadliest months since the start of the pandemic, and as new deaths are reported, the total is likely to grow.
At least 1,118 deaths have been reported in January, but the vast majority of those reported deaths actually occurred in December or earlier. Only 106 actually occurred in January, though many of the reported deaths remain undated.
It takes some time for ADPH to review medical records and verify a death is caused by COVID-19, and the department reports deaths in two ways: In the first, the death is reported on the day ADPH confirms the death as being from the disease. In the second, ADPH reports the date on which the death actually occurred. Confirmation can take weeks, or longer.
The U.S. on Tuesday recorded more COVID-19 deaths than on any other single day during the pandemic, at 4,327, according to Johns Hopkins University. There have been at least 384,204 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., but that figure is likely an undercount, according to medical experts.
“Generally, we would expect COVID to be listed on the death certificate, but that might not necessarily be the case,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer at ADPH, speaking to APR recently. “So it is possible they could still be determined to be a COVID death as a result of comorbidities that were triggered or made worse from the viral infection.”
The CDC and the CDC’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System guidelines state that 30 days after a COVID-19 diagnosis a person is presumed to have recovered, which means that if that person were hospitalized for more than 30 days and dies, it’s possible that their death won’t be classified as from COVID-19 by the workers who input that data into the system.
ADPH has a team of workers who review those databases and medical records to determine if a death was in fact due to COVID-19, or medical complications as a result of the disease. That team includes a primary care physician who handles the adult cases, an OB-GYN who reviews cases of pregnant women and Landers herself, who deals with deaths of juveniles, Landers said.
Landers said those staff members are going back through death certificates and medical records and looking to see if the person did have COVID at some point, and what role that might have played in their death.
“We made this commitment under Dr. Harris’s direction that we would look very meticulously at each one of these because, again, it’s still a learning process about this virus,” Landers said, referring to Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris. “It is extremely important for us to be accurate in terms of the data so that we can capture, what is the mortality rate, why did people die from COVID-19 and what are the contributory factors to COVID-19?”
Landers dispelled an often-mentioned myth that there’s money to be made by incorrectly identifying deaths as COVID-19.
“We’re not gonna get paid any more money in the Alabama Department of Public Health for one death or 10 deaths,” Landers said. “Data accuracy is important from the standpoint of knowing, okay, how deadly is this disease?”
Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of UAB’s division of infectious diseases, told APR last month that during recent shifts at the hospital she learned of a patient who came in with severe COVID-19 pneumonia in late November and progressively worsened, requiring ICU care.
“They continue to deteriorate. They get what we call ARDS or adult respiratory distress syndrome,” Marrazzo said. “They’re in the unit for another 10 to 12 days, then, like many people who are persistently on the ventilator they get what’s called a nosocomial pneumonia.”
“So now you’re taking care of somebody who’s in an intensive care unit. They’re getting multiple antibiotics. They can get complications from the antibiotics that we can’t prevent, and you are now trying so hard to keep them going, and hopefully alive,” Marrazzo said.
The hope is always that someone will improve and be released before the 30-day timeline, Marrazzo said, but hospital stays of more than 30 days are not uncommon.
“What if on January 2 they have a cardiac arrest, or they have an episode of septicemia or septic shock from an infection that they acquired as a consequence of being so sick and in the ICU?” Marrazzo said. “That COVID diagnosis that drove them into the hospital so long ago, may not show up on their death certificate, and so attributing deaths to COVID is going to be a real skill, as we look at this surveillance from these databases.”
“So Dr. landers is absolutely correct,” Marrazzo said. “And it’s another reason that I think the toll of this pandemic on our families, our communities, everybody, is really not going to become clear until we’ve had a chance to get our heads above water and go back and look at some of these sources.”
ADPH in a statement on Tuesday said the department continues to review a large number of deaths.
“At this time, two-thirds of the deaths have been reviewed and ADPH expects this will take a few more weeks to complete. This may result in additional death numbers which are historic and do not reflect recent mortality due to COVID-19,” the statement reads.
Alabama lawmaker will attend her 19th COVID funeral
Rep. Barbara Drummond: “This virus has exposed the skeletons of not only Alabama but across the nation.”
When it comes to the tragedy of the COVID-19 virus, Rep. Barbara Drummond is more familiar than most. On Friday, Drummond will attend the funeral of a 56-year-old friend who died from coronavirus. It will be her 19th funeral this year for a close friend or family member who has died from the virus.
Drummond joined the Alabama Politics This Week Podcast to discuss the devastation she’s witnessed from the virus, and how it has exposed serious inequalities around the state and country.
“This virus has exposed the skeletons of not only Alabama but across the nation,” Drummond said. “The disparities not only in health care. But in education. In income. When you look at the African American communities that are affected by this virus, they are food deserts. People can’t get healthy foods. They can’t get access to quality health care. That’s what’s going on here.”
Drummond said that for too long, poor communities in this state have been vilified and thought of as deadbeats who don’t want to work, but in reality, they are stuck in a perpetual cycle of poverty due to a lack of basic resources and access to quality education, health care and job opportunities.
“I hear people say all the time that people in this community don’t want to work,” Drummond said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. They don’t have the opportunity to support themselves and their families most of the time. If you think about it, you don’t know anyone who grew up dreaming of being poor.”
Drummond also discussed the upcoming legislative session and the Democrats’ plans to address some of the devastation from COVID. However, that work can’t be done until the Republican leadership that controls both houses establishes a workable plan to conduct the state’s business in a safe manner.
Drummond said she’s been in contact with leaders and has heard details of the plan. She’s not exactly comfortable.
“I would not be honest to sit here and say I have no fears in going for the session,” Drummond said. “But I will go in with the recommendations of the CDC and the common sense that my mom raised me with. I will go because we have work to do and that work is very important to our state, especially now.”
You can listen to the entire interview with Drummond at the Alabama Politics This Week website or on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.