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Alabama advocates hope to reintroduce legislation reforming civil asset forfeiture

Gabby Dance

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Innocent until proven guilty is heralded as a rightful standard in the United States criminal justice system, but when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, the standard seemingly flips to the opposite.

Under Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture policies, police are able to seize personal property from citizens without a criminal charge or conviction if they find probable cause to believe the property could be connected to a crime.

In order to regain their property, owners not convicted of crimes must go through a court process to prove the property was not connected to a crime. Even then, it may take months or years to receive their property, if they ever get it back.

Because of this, Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture laws have been rated among the worst in the nation by the Institute for Justice.

According to Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice Carla Crowder, this practice harms low-income Alabamians who may not have the necessary funds to hire a lawyer. For these people, having money or cars taken away can be extremely detrimental.

“What we found is that a lot of people, even though their money or their property is taken, and they are not convicted of a crime, don’t have the resources to hire an attorney so they don’t go to court to challenge that forfeiture,” Crowder said. “So, they end up losing a lot of property or their money.’

The practice gained federal popularity during the so-called “War on Drugs” of the 1980s as a means to fight organized crime. However, Crowder said it has evolved to target ordinary citizens with no criminal intentions.

“You can be someone who doesn’t have a bank account, you’re driving down the road, you get pulled over in a traffic incident and the police find $1,500 in the car because you’ve just cashed a paycheck,” Crowder said. “When the officer sees the cash, he or she can take it. The police are taking small amounts of cash and property and not having to prove people were involved in a crime, much less some kind of big, criminal enterprise.”

According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the amount of cash seized in half of Alabama’s 1,100 examined civil asset forfeiture cases was under $1,372.

Government entities in Alabama have historically not been required to report what they have taken or what they have done with the unclaimed property.

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“It just should be a given that when the government takes citizen’s property, we should know what they’re doing with it,” Crowder said. “They should have to report what they take, what they keep, how they use it.”

Alabama takes step to create civil asset forfeiture database

According to Crowder, this can potentially lead to abuse by officers, who could take proceeds from federal forfeiture actions for themselves.

“This is an example where police agencies, instead of pursuing fairness and justice, are pursuing profits,” Crowder said. “That’s just now how the criminal justice system should work. The system should be designed to keep communities safer and treat people fairly, not for police officers to make a profit off of innocent citizens’ property.”

Last year, legislation calling for a criminal conviction to be required in order to seize property, protection of property owners and transparency of the process was introduced by state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, and state Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Birmingham.

This legislative session, advocates are planning to introduce another similar bill.

“We do expect that bill to be filed,” said SPLC staff attorney Emily Early.

The omnibus bill would essentially end the practice of civil asset forfeiture, grouping it into criminal proceedings.

“There would be a requirement of a criminal conviction for any forfeiture of property or proceeds to occur,” Early said.

Civil asset forfeiture reform has been a recent nationwide trend.

A current bill requiring a criminal conviction before the forfeiture of property has gained strong support in the South Carolina legislature, and the Arkansas state Senate recently unanimously approved a bill requiring a criminal conviction before civil asset forfeiture.

The Supreme Court also ruled in late February that people who have lost property through civil asset forfeiture can argue that the amount taken was excessive under the eighth amendment of the Constitution, which bars excessive fines.

“Alabama would not be a first to step out there and reform this practice, which we believe is a huge governmental overreach and a violation of an individual’s due process right,” Early said.

Last year’s bill gained bipartisan support but ultimately failed to pass due to law enforcement pushback.

“There was significant opposition from law enforcement, unfortunately, in the state of Alabama, particularly prosecutors such as district attorneys who are opposed to ending civil asset forfeiture and believe that civil asset forfeiture is a necessary means to fight crime,” Early said. “Our position in introducing the bill that would end civil asset forfeiture … is that it is completely possible to fight crime and to really get at the higher-level criminal perpetrators without taking away property when there is no sort of crime, charge or conviction.”

Though a potential future bill has not been brought into play yet, progress toward accountability with civil asset forfeiture has been made.

Last week, the Alabama Districts Attorneys Association, alongside Mooney, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and other public policy groups, began taking steps toward creating a reporting system to keep track of the use of civil asset forfeiture in Alabama.

The Alabama Forfeiture Accountability System will track and compile all state civil asset forfeiture cases, generate reports to lawmakers and state officials and provide information on the use of civil asset forfeitures to the public.

District attorneys across the state started collecting data related to civil asset forfeiture, including filings, pleadings and court rulings, on March 1 to submit to the database.

“This has been a work in progress since last spring, when legislation to create a data collection and reporting system for civil asset forfeiture system died when time ran out on the legislative session,” said Barry Matson, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association and the state Office of Prosecution Services. “But we continued to work with many groups – from law enforcement and state agencies to policy groups with an interest in asset forfeiture – to voluntarily put the system in place.”

Mooney hopes that this will aid lawmakers in supporting a future bill.

“I can’t overstate the importance to lawmakers of having accurate, reliable information as we look legislatively at civil asset forfeitures,” Mooney said. “This new system will help paint a clearer picture of what is actually going on in the state.”

Though the new database shows progress, the SPLC’s Shay Farley said legislative change is still necessary to ensure the government is protecting individual property and due process rights.

“Increasing government transparency is always a positive step but as they say: ‘the devil is in the details,’” Farley said. “Information about how much revenue is collected in Alabama civil asset forfeiture cases or how those funds are used by the receiving governmental entities throughout the state has always been secret, and it’s not clear this will change in this new system.”

 

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Corruption

Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail

Josh Moon

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Former Alabama Sen. David Burkette

Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday. 

Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.

He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal. 

“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports. 

The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations. 

The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.

The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign. 

“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”

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Legislature

Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws

Josh Moon

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Former State Sen. David Burkette

David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act. 

According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council. 

The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated. 

The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018. 

In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.

The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.

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Legislature

Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage

Josh Moon

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Sen. Doug Jones speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (VIA CSPAN)

What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job. 

These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.

The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials. 

Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices. 

The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.

“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”

Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare. 

Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities. 

A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest. 

“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”

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Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace. 

That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents. 

“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.

“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”

The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like. 

On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.

 

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Elections

Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49

Brandon Moseley

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House District 49 Republican nominee Russell Bedsole

As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.

At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.

“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.

Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.

“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”

Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.

There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.

Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.

The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.

Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.

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The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.

In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”

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